Purposeful plastic: La Jolla native launches kickstarter campaign for eco-tile company

Coldharbour Tiles co-founders Jake Calhoun and Emily Packer

A few days ago, thousands of miles from La Jolla in the small East African country of Rwanda, La Jolla native Emily Packer helped launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of Coldharbour Tiles, a luxury eco-tile company, which makes wall and decorative tiles from 100-percent recycled plastic waste.

The intent of the Kickstarter, which went live Feb. 25, is to increase production to manufacture and distribute the tiles — which come in three shapes (hexagon, rectangle and a small square) and a variety of colors based on available plastics — and get one step closer to reducing the massive amounts of plastic pollution that ends up in the ocean each year.

“When you start reading about what plastics do to eco-systems, to the oceans … it can feel like this far away thing happening ‘out there’ that we don’t have much connection to, but it is now in our food systems, it’s everywhere,” she told La Jolla Light. “We have to reduce our plastic footprint and work together on it.”

A videographer of 10 years — and the daughter of famed Padres sportscaster Dick Enberg — Packer has seen first-hand the impoverished corners of the world where plastic pollution is rampant. And while motivated to do something to reduce plastic waste, she said she didn’t want to simply delay the problem.

“Even if you reuse plastic or recycle it into another disposable item, you will eventually throw it out and you have the same problem,” she said. “I wanted to make something with longevity.”

Examples of Coldharbour Tiles Courtesy

Choosing tiles for kitchens or bathrooms, she reached out to local resources and “youtubed” her way through the process. “I connected with an engineering school here and worked with interns. We pieced together the machines and tested ways to melt the plastic and figured out a system that worked for us,” she explained. “Then we connected with a waste management company here. We use HDPE food grade plastic, such as bottle caps, shampoo bottles, etc. But there isn’t a sorting system here. So my team and I go in and pick out the pieces we need. There is also a strong ex-pats group that collect plastic at their homes and drop it off and we work with an old school that gives us their plastics.”

From there, using a rented-out space at a local engineering college, the Coldharbour Tiles team washes the plastics by hand to rid it of any glue or food waste, sort it by color, shreds the plastic into tiny pellets, and uses the pellets to fill hand-made molds in the three shapes — before throwing the molds into an oven for an intentionally slow cook.

Packer explained: “There is a certain temperature at which plastic creates more toxic fumes, so we have to cook them at a low temperatures for 40 minutes and use a compression machine to shape (the tiles), cool them, sand and buffer them. To give them that shine, we coat it with organic Rwandan beeswax rather than a glaze.”

All said, each hexagonal tiles uses 130 grams of plastic (the equivalent of 43 plastic bottle caps), each rectangle tile uses 80 grams of plastic (27 plastic bottle caps) and the small square uses three grams of plastic (1 plastic bottle cap). Keep in mind, it takes 93 rectangle tiles to fill one square meter.

And because the compilation of plastics is subject to availability, the colors end up being randomly diverse. “It ends up looking like stone because the colors are mixed,” she said. “It’s a cool, beautiful effect.”

Thus far, only one bathroom and kitchen have been tiled with this process. But should the Kickstarter page garner enough capital, Packer said they would expand sales to Europe and the United States, establish better access to recycling systems to increase their material, improve their assembly systems (ideally relying solely on renewable energy), and more.

But, perhaps most importantly, “If things took off, the impact on plastic re-usage and reduction would be huge,” she said.

According to press material, Coldharbour Tiles aims to recycle over two tons of plastic per day.

“Emily and I are both passionate about environmental justice,” said co-founder Jake Calhoun. “With her design and entrepreneurial experience, and my systems engineering and business background, we decided to build a plastics-recycling business that produces beautiful, sensible products. We felt that launching Coldharbour Tiles was the best way for us to play a small part in working toward a cleaner more sustainable planet.

“Not only are tiles a long-lasting and practical product, but they replace ceramic tiles, which can be environmentally detrimental due to the energy consumed during production and transportation, as well as the toxic chemicals often used during the glazing process. It is a nice product with a deeply important mission.”

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