The ripple effect: How the growth of a Kansas City glass recycler is inspiring others

Even without the machinery running, Mike Utz must yell over the intermittent sound of glass crashing in the distance, like waves against a shore.

Every week, trailer-sized purple bins filled with bottles, jars and an assortment of other glass containers are hauled in from 10 different states and unloaded into a warehouse where the glass is crushed into small pieces and sorted by color.

But today, the plant is dead, save a few workers sorting through rejected glass outside the building. Through his plastic safety goggles, Utz explains each machine to a cohort of tourists — some of whom have ventured from far corners of Missouri just to get a closer look at the Kansas City facility.

For two years running, Ripple Glass has hosted tours of the glass recycling plant during the company’s annual glass recycling summit, where experts come from across the country to discuss the future of the industry. But the yearly event also serves as a celebration of the company’s growth and what Utz, the company’s president, says has been a major transformation in how Kansas City handles its glass waste.

With no city-run glass recycling program, Ripple Glass essentially created a new market for the region when it started operations in 2009. The company collects and processes glass waste for the whole Kansas City metro area, as well as through partners in neighboring states. It then sells the glass to a nearby Owens Corning plant, which uses the material to manufacture fiberglass insulation.

The setup has proven to be quite successful for Ripple Glass, and people from across Missouri, and the country, are now traveling to visit the Kansas City recycler, inspired to learn more about the work that’s being done there.

Last year, Ripple Glass recycled a total of about 45,000 tons of glass, up from 9,000 tons its first year, Utz said. The company has also more than quadrupled its staff since 2009, from five the first year to 23 this year, and increased overall revenue sixfold since 2010.

Last week, officials said that the company’s newest commercial collection program has been more popular than anticipated, and that more than 150 new businesses would be participating in it by August.

To Utz, it’s all part of a plan to make Kansas City more sustainable and prove that glass recycling is not only viable, but well worth the effort. “We’ve saved 35,000 tons of glass from going to the Kansas City landfill since 2009. That’s $1.2 million saved for the city,” he said. “It’s been a positive impact. We’re helping solve problems, not creating news ones.”

From brews to bins

Ripple Glass rose out of a desire to fix a rather straightforward problem, said John McDonald, co-founder of Ripple Glass and founder of Boulevard Brewing Co. “We produced a lot of glass, and it had no place to go,” he said. “Many truckloads a day.”

In 2009, Kansas City threw about 150 million pounds of glass into the landfill. Across the metro area, roughly 80,000 tons of glass waste was created each year, and less than 4 percent of that waste was getting recycled, according to information from Bridging the Gap and confirmed by the city.

Boulevard was contributing to that problem, McDonald said. For decades, the Kansas City brewery was pumping out millions of glass bottles each year. In 2009, it generated more than 26 million bottles of beer, or about 5,800 tons of glass waste.

And because the city doesn’t operate a glass recycling program, that glass went mostly to the landfill. Glass is heavy. It’s expensive to transport and process. And when it breaks, it mixes in with other recycling materials like plastic and paper, making it difficult to sort out.

Kansas City decided it just wasn’t worth the effort, said Forest Decker, assistant manager for Kansas City Solid Waste Services.

But for McDonald, Utz and Ripple Glass CFO Jeff Krum — who all describe themselves as staunch environmentalists — that was simply unacceptable, especially since, as major stakeholders of Boulevard, they were part of the problem.

So over the last two decades, the three started looking into ways to give their used bottles a new home. They visited glass recycling centers in California, introduced themselves to industry experts, and researched what it would take to run a recycling company.

“When we first had the idea, we were dumb enough to think we could actually make our own bottles,” McDonald said, laughing. “That was really stupid because glass plants cost a lot of money and there’s already a lot of them.”

Eventually, they settled on doing everything short of manufacturing new glass products. They would collect the city’s glass, sort it themselves, and process it back into cullet, a fine dust that can be melted down and manufactured back into consumer or industrial products.

That’s how Ripple Glass was born. In the beginning, the company used 60 bins, each about the size of a small trailer and painted bright purple, to collect glass across Kansas City and then truck the glass back to their plant for processing. Today, the company operates 100 bins around the city’s metro area. It also collects from partners in 10 different states, including Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Arkansas, all of which carry Ripple Glass’ distinctive purple bins.

Initially starting with 60 bins, Ripple Glass now has 100 of its purple bins across the Kansas City metro area. The company also collects glass from partners in 10 different states. | Annika Merrilees/Missouri Business Alert

Utz said he hopes the company’s efforts inspire others to do what they can to clean up the environment and support local sustainability or, in other words, spread positive ripples — hence the name.

Decker said the city is certainly happy with the success Ripple Glass has seen over the years and is grateful that the company has found a way to pick up the slack when it comes to glass recycling in Kansas City. “They obviously provide a recycling niche that we as a city don’t really provide,” he said. “They’re doing such a good job.”

‘The perfect recipe’

For many cities across the U.S., recycling glass has often been too difficult for the effort, said Susan Collins, president of Container Recycling Institute, a recycling research organization based in California.

Other materials almost always get mixed in with the glass during the collection process, Collins said. For curbside collection programs in the U.S., she said, between 35 and 40 percent of the material that goes into glass bales are actually paper or plastic.

That’s why some places buck collecting glass altogether, or why some manufacturers refuse to take glass from cities that collect using single sort, where all materials are collected in one bin and sorted through later. But that’s also why Ripple Glass was able to find success in its business model, Collins said.

“They had a situation where Kansas City wasn’t already accepting glass, they had the proximity of the Owens Corning facility, which is the market,” she said. “So, they had the perfect recipe of supply meet demand.”

But that was no easy feat, Utz said. To date, Ripple Glass has invested $6 million in its plant, including four expensive optical sorting machines that use light to determine the color and material of an object. Those cost $500,000 each, Utz said, and can sort between 64,000 different colors.

Yet McDonald believes that despite that high initial investment cost, Ripple Glass can still serve as a new model for other recycling programs, and others may think so, too. The facility is regularly contacted by other municipalities looking to replicate their process, he said.

There’s certainly room for growth, Utz said, and the only obstacle the company currently faces is its ability to supply enough glass. “If any glass goes to the landfill, it’s a shame,” he said. “There’s a really strong demand for glass cullet right now.”

Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.

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