clay-recycling.jpg Can clay be recycled? It depends on the type and the condition. If you are talking about the high-quality clay that artists use to throw or hand-compose beautiful bowls and sculptures, the answer is yes. If the item in question is made of lower-quality clay you buy for kids or clay items that have already been fired, the answer is no. However, there are options for reusing many clay products that fall into these categories. Read on for details.

What is clay?

Simply put, clay is a type of dirt. It falls at the very end of a spectrum that starts with sand (which is made of relatively large particles) and ends with clay (which is made up of very small pieces). It comes in a variety of colors, including brown, red, yellow and more. Home gardeners often curse clay because for it is difficult to grow fruits and veggies in. However, crafters all over the world love it for its ability to hold its shape and harden when heated to high temperatures. Humans have used clay vessels to hold water and food for thousands of years; the oldest known pottery shards, discovered in China, are 20,000 years old. In most cases, you would not want to dig clay from your garden and dump it directly on your pottery wheel. Soil is typically made up a combination of sand, loam and clay. Plus, it is likely to have leaves, pine needles, moss and other bits of nature mixed in. It is possible to take clay-rich soil and refine it for use in pottery projects, or you can purchase clay from art supply stores. There are other products we call clay, such as children’s modeling clay and brightly colored clay for making jewelry and small figurines. There are a few varieties made from polyvinyl chloride (the same material that pipes and vinyl records are made of). However, most contain a mix of natural ingredients (such as flour and salt) and synthetic ones (such as artificial colors and petroleum-based products).

How to recycle artist’s clay

It is relatively easy to recycle artist’s clay and put it back to use, even if it has completely dried out. All it takes is some time and some good instructions. offers a useful article that provides details for recycling any clay trimmings generated during the art-making process. Here is a summary of its suggestions:
  • Set up different buckets for any different types and colors of clay you work with (slow firing, hand-building, etc.). Place any clay in its corresponding bucket and let it dry out completely. Make sure the clay is free of dirt and other debris.
  • Add enough water to cover clay by a few inches. Let it sit, stirring once a day, until the mixture has a very thick consistency.
  • Pour off the water, then gather the clay and lay it on an absorbent surface. Let it dry out just enough that you can work it again.
  • Store the clay in a plastic bag until you are ready to use it.

How to recycle children’s clay

Clay is great for letting children express their creative side. Unfortunately, there is not any great way to the recycle it. If your children are bored with their clay, see if you can pass it on to another family that would like to keep using it. Here is another idea: Instead of purchasing clay, make your own at home. The website Family Education has several recipes for making clay out of common household items like flour and salt. As long as you do not add nonbiodegradable ingredients like paint you should be able to water it down or break the clay into small pieces and put it in your compost bin when you are finished. Even if you have to throw it away, you will know you are not introducing petroleum products and chemicals into the environment.

How to recycle products made of clay

With few exceptions, clay cannot be recycled once it has been fired. There is a growing movement in Japan to reclaim and recycle yakimono dishes (a general term for Japanese pottery). The dishes are made using clay rich in minerals such as quartz and kaolin, which are becoming more rare. An effort led by the Gifu Prefectural Ceramics Research Institute collects the pottery, grinds it up and mixes it with new clay. The resulting product, called ReTableware, has proved quite popular. Even if your clay dishes cannot be recycled, there are many ways to reuse them. If you have dishes, statues or other items made of clay that you do not want anymore, consider donating them to your favorite charity. Broken ceramics make nice mosaics. Try using them in stepping stones in the garden or on the sides of terracotta pots. You can put small pieces in the bottom of potted plants to help with drainage. Several companies tumble old pottery to give it a smooth edge and sell it to people who make jewelry. The flowers, bright colors and other designs add interest to necklaces and jewelry. Sometimes called “sea pottery” because it is similar to smooth-edged sea glass you can pick up on the beach, tumbled pottery also makes an interesting landscaping accent.