Kafka Granite recycles an unusual variety of specialty materials

191by Mary Weaver

Although Kafka Granite’s focus is on supplying high quality aggregate in a multitude of colors, to the architectural market, Glenn Kafka, owner, has long been known to lend a helping hand in solving problems faced by other businesses. In fact, Glenn Kafka’s problem-solving abilities have somewhat unexpectedly, landed him in the recycling business as well. When Kohler Co.’s Wisconsin landfills became seriously clogged with fresh-off-the-line porcelain toilets that did not meet the standards of Kohler’s inspectors, Wausau Tile, a long time Kafka Granite customer, intervened. They asked Glenn if he could crush the high-quality porcelain for Wausau Tile to use in a new line of products. Glenn Kafka’s ready reply was, “Heck yeah! I’ll crush anything.”

With those words, Kafka Granite started the new product line. Wausau Tile and other companies that manufacture products like terrazzo flooring and quartz countertops use this crushed porcelain. It also is used for exposed aggregate architectural panels, pathway materials, and non-skid road surfacing.

The porcelain material fits in nicely with other items in Kafka’s product line. They offer more than 60 colors of natural granite, quartz, and marble, materials used in precast concrete, epoxy resin flooring and countertops. The porcelain is also a component of epoxy overlay surfacing, landscape stone, pathway materials, ball yard materials, and more.

Interestingly porcelain has an advantage over other natural stone in that it absorbs minimal water, making it ideal for northern freeze/thaw climates. Additionally, the strength of the recycled porcelain does not readily break down, making it especially useful as a permeable paver joint infill with excellent water drainage properties.

Current facility

Kafka’s present site, an 80-acre Mosinee, WI property, offers adequate space for stockpiling infeed materials. The company relocated all its operations to the Mosinee site in 2000, when their previous owned and leased quarries left no room for corporate growth. At the time, Kafka moved conveyors, several crushers and screeners along with large quantities of rock to their new facility. However, upon relocating, they need to redesign their custom system to meet the company’s needs at the new, much larger site. Glenn worked very closely with his brother, Jim during the redesign. Jim Kafka’s business, Kafka Conveyors & Equipment, built the updated plant.

Even with an excellent, custom-made crushing system already in place, there were problems to solve before Kafka Granite could begin crushing the porcelain. “To be usable, the porcelain had to be clean, so Kohler prepared a pad to store their factory rejects, and changed loading procedures,” explained Glenn. “Kohler also had to change some manufacturing methods. To be recyclable, the porcelain could not be mixed with any metal, plastic, wire, gravel or other contaminants. It had to be 100% porcelain.”

Kohler’s off-spec toilets had to be rough-crushed before Kafka Trucking picked them up to reduce the bulk and to increase the load weight each trip. “They crush the porcelain by running over it with a dozer,” Glenn chuckled. “Then we take it from their pad, transport it to our facility and stockpile it on asphalt in bulk bins. Finally, we sort through the porcelain a final time before crushing it to be sure there are no contaminants.”

“The porcelain is extremely hard. It can really beat up our equipment. This extra wear and tear affects how we have to price the product,” commented Glenn’s daughter Tiffany, who is in charge of marketing and public relations. Tiffany just finished her first year with the company in a full-time capacity, since graduating college.

“It’s a very, very abrasive material,” added Glenn. “When we crush it, we go through parts more quickly, and we replace wear-parts more often. I learn from my mistakes, and I’ve developed a crushing system that works.”

Once the porcelain is crushed to spec and inspected, it is sold in bulk truckloads, or prepared in 3,000-pound super sacks or 50-pound bags for shipping. “We probably go through several thousand tons of porcelain each year,” Glenn added. “Our business is growing. We’ve gone through the backlog at the Wisconsin Kohler plant, and now Kohler is shipping us product by railroad from their larger, Texas plant.”

Kafka’s reputation for the highest quality control and adherence to specs have helped make their recycled products desirable to architectural customers. Architects use the recycled porcelain, as well as Kafka’s other recycled products, to earn credits for LEED certification.

A diverse line of products

Kafka Granite also recycles other materials. Glass television and computer screens are diverted from landfills and are crushed and to customers’ specifications. “The smokey-clear glass is particularly useful in manufactured quartz countertops and flooring to take the place of rare clear quartz when architects are trying to create the look of simulated granite.

The smoked glass gives depth,” noted Beverly Kafka, Glenn’s wife and co-owner of the business. From the beginning, Beverly has been a working partner, not only as a co-decision maker, but with her administrative skills as well.

“With the smoked glass as an ingredient, you can see right down into the counter top,” added Glenn. “It’s extremely hard to find veins of naturally clear quartz, so our recycled smoked glass is a great alternative.”

Kafka Granite has recently added a second crushing and screening line, so they can manufacture two different colored products at the same time. For example, firebrick is crushed into a pathway material. Copper slag from a refining process, although mostly used as recycled aggregate in precast concrete to increase the recycled content, is also occasionally used as exposed aggregate on architectural precast panels. That gives the panels an attractive glassy, jet-black color, accented by red flecks.

Crushed two-sided mirrors are another item that arrives at the plant sorted in SuperSacks. “These are in short supply and are quite expensive,” noted Glenn. Kafka crushes the mirrors for use in upscale terrazzo floors and quartz countertops. They also crush oyster shells exclusively for Wausau Tile, which are used in pavers and terrazzo tiles to mimic the “mother-of-pearl” look.

When the company began recycling the porcelain, Kafka also discovered a source of gypsum they could recycle. The gypsum was originally used to make molds for Kohler’s toilets. The molds need to be replaced periodically, so the scrap gypsum was set aside to be shipped to Kafka. The gypsum (calcium and sulfur) is crushed into powder, which is used for organic farming.

Kafka Granite also uses a state-of-the-art dust collection system. These fines are recycled into Kafka Granite’s pathway mixes, an environmentally-friendly alternative to hardscape material. This dust is stored in super sacks until it is used.

“On an average day of crushing, we can collect 2-3 super sacks full of dust, a material that has a consistency similar to talcum-powder. We collect all different colors of dust, so it doesn’t change the final color of the pathway ordered,” explained Tiffany.

Quality Control

Glenn has instituted very tight quality controls to make sure the company meets or exceeds strict sizing and purity standards. Glenn’s son, Chris Kafka, heads their quality control and sample lab up.

“I do a sieve analysis,” explained Chris Kafka. “Everything is weighed. I can determine if they’re going too fast and not screening out all the dust. If that happens, I warn the crushing team to slow down or make screen changes. All products are checked in the lab for size, hardness and dryness.”

“The crusher and all the equipment must be cleaned out,” explained Beverly, “almost with a toothbrush.” “But not quite,” added Glenn. “The toothbrush part is a company joke, emphasizing just how careful we must be, particularly if we are going from, say, a jet black to a pure white aggregate. How fussy we must be depends on how tight the specs are,” Glenn continued, “but each cleanout can cost a couple hours or more of downtime.

“We crawl in there and do a lot by hand. First, we use brooms and shovels. Then we spray water and blow in air. Everything must be cleaned: the conveyors, the crusher, the screens, the hoppers, everything.”

It is this kind of attention to detail and to meeting customers’ exact specifications that has earned Kafka Granite their reputation for excellence. From a small supplier of decomposed granite road materials, to one of the largest manufacturers and suppliers of specialty aggregates and crushed stone in North America, Kafkas have done that all in only 35 years.

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