Waldo County man makes sidewalks out of old toilets

Posted March 30, 2012, at 5:03 a.m.
Last modified March 30, 2012, at 11:17 a.m.

JACKSON, Maine — When Freeman Anthony was growing up on Common Hill Farm in Jackson in the 1980s, he learned how to do a lot with a little.

“As my dad used to say: making chicken salad out of chicken [excrement],” he said in a recent telephone interview from Bellingham, Wash., where the 36-year-old project engineer now lives. “Using what you had and a little know-how to make it work.”

It’s a skill that comes in handy, especially in light of one of Anthony’s most recent projects — making a new sidewalk out of 5 tons of crushed-up old toilets, dubbed by his co-worker “poticrete.”

“The local folks think it’s cute and great,” he said. “Some think it’s kind of ridiculous, and what are we smoking down here?”

The 1993 Mount View High School graduate moved to the 80,000-resident West Coast college city several years ago. He works for the city of Bellingham, which he describes as having a “strong liberal and environmentally conscious mindset,” and spends much of his time on road rehabilitation projects there.

When the Bellingham Housing Authority received a federal grant last year to replace 400 old toilets with water-efficient models, a local nonprofit agency called Sustainable Connections helped get the city to use the leftover loos. That’s where Anthony came in.

“One of the folks that helped them get the grant knew that we’re into waste reduction,” he said. “That’s a lot of toilets. A few too many to put in your backyard as art.”

So the city worked with a concrete supplier to have the toilets crushed up and mixed with sand and cement to create the new construction material.

It was a trial and error method at first, he said.

“The first batch we used 40 percent crushed toilets. That was a little much. It was a little bony,” he said.

But when the mix was made with just 20 percent toilets, it was a different story.

“We said, ‘Hey, this is going to work out just fine,’” Anthony recalled.

Altogether, the poticrete was used to make about a city block’s worth of sidewalk in the Meador Kansas Ellis Trail project at the edge of downtown Bellingham.

While it doesn’t look or feel different, Anthony said, workers ground the edges down on one patch of sidewalk — for educational purposes.

“It’s very obvious in one spot. ‘Oh, look, there’s all the little pieces of toilets!’” he said.

The $850,000 project, which also improved more sections of sidewalk and road there before its completion last fall, earned the first Greenroads certification at the end of February. The Washington-based Greenroads Foundation, which is active in six or seven states, is aiming to be the “LEED of roadway design,” he said. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rates high-performance green buildings around the world.

In addition to the poticrete sidewalks, Anthony said that the project included 80 tons of recycled concrete, a variety of different porous surfaces, low-impact stormwater techniques, low-energy lighting and more.

“We had enough progressive engineering in this to get certified,” he said.

So far, the project has made headlines in Scientific American and the Huffington Post, which Anthony said will help get the word out about this kind of recycling.

“Concrete made with 20 percent porcelain, and 5 tons of toilets out of the landfill,” he said. “We’re real pleased.”

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