BIG Recyclers shatters barriers, paving way for glass recycling in Walla Walla
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BIG Recyclers shatters barriers, paving way for glass recycling in Walla Walla

Jun 27, 2023

Business Reporter

BIG Recyclers is working to bridge the gap between restaurants and residents wanting to recycle their glass and manufacturers who will accept it.

Katie Masferrer, vice president of BIG Recyclers, said opening the new drop-off site has taken a lot of time, thought and collaboration.

She said while glass is fully recyclable and can undergo endless recycling, there have been two significant challenges in starting the complete "reduce and reuse" approach, especially in Eastern Washington.

Masferrer said glass is expensive to move, especially because the closest manufacturer accepting glass is more than 250 miles away on the west side of the state. Quality of glass is the second challenge to overcome. She said only about 40% of collected co-mingled glass is recycled by the manufacturers.

Masferrer's motivation to focus on glass recycling stemmed from her experience as a tasting room manager for a winery in the Valley. Witnessing the number of discarded wine bottles left a lasting impact, leading her to believe something needed to be done to address the issue.

"Seeing all of the wine bottles get thrown away was so painful," she said. "My thought at the time was, somebody has got to do something about this. This is ridiculous."

Initially, she explored the possibility of recycling the bottles by having wineries wash and reuse them. However, that idea proved to be impractical. "I kind of got shut down everywhere I looked because bottle washing sounds great, but logistically, it wouldn't work," she said.

It wasn't until she stumbled upon an article at the bottom of a sustainability newsletter that she read about Chris Lueck, who was grinding wine bottles into glass sand in Walla Walla.

"I remember thinking, clearly this guy is trying to solve the same problem too, so I better reach out to him," Masferrer said.

Lueck is the founder and president of Ground2Ground Glass which is now BIG Recyclers, a nonprofit. Masferrer started to help out with glass grinding and eventually arrived at her present position.

The Walla Walla AVA is home to more than 100 wineries known for producing some of the best wines in the state, the Valley is also home to a number of breweries, cideries and distilleries who are all part of the beverage industry that uses glass for their products. Eastern Washington as a whole hosts more than 600 wineries and craft beverage producers.

With that much wine going out, bottles have been piling up with no place to go but the landfill.

BIG Recyclers attempted to figure out how to reduce, reuse and recycle the mountains of glass wine bottles and started by creating glass sand, which has a variety of uses such as road construction, mulch in vineyards and sandbags.

A local bed and breakfast in Walla Walla called The Barn B&B, used crushed green glass bottles from DAMA wines to spread around the grounds of the property. Woodward Canyon Winery had a pathway made of glass sand installed as well.

The sand from recycled wine bottles was used for a garden path at Woodward Canyon Winery.

BIG Recyclers was grinding glass for a year before they realized they were in a bit over their heads. They had one hand-fed bottle grinder machine and 25 wineries as partners who were giving them all their glass.

"More wineries wanted to be a part of the process, but realistically, we couldn't take any more glass," Masferrer said. "Then we thought maybe we should get a bigger machine but that would just mean more sand."

She said cities and counties could not be convinced to use the sand for construction projects or as a replacement for regular sand.

So, in leu of another option, BIG Recyclers took a break to see what could be done.

Chris Lueck shows some of the ground bottle glass that was sifted from the larger particles at Ground2Ground.

Hope wouldn't be restored until the organization became a part of the statewide effort looking at glass recycling solutions for rural communities and was accepted into Washington's NextCycle program. BIG Recyclers partnered with the Glass Packing Institute — or GPI — which represents glass container manufacturers across the country.

GPI has developed a Hub-and-Spoke model that has been successful in cities such as Phoenix and Chicago to allow for wineries, breweries, bars and restaurants to collect their glass bottles in a local drop-off spoke, or collection point. Once the spoke has collected enough material, the glass will be transported to the manufacturing centers to be made into new containers.

In the case of Walla Walla and the surrounding areas, the collected glass will be transported to the Pasco hub and then trucked to Seattle or Portland to be made into new bottles.

Masferrer said BIG Recyclers aspires to contribute to the circular economy in Eastern Washington.

The company aims to create and expand a system where products and byproducts circulate productively within the economy. The circular economy approach involves matching waste and undervalued resources across industries to identify viable alternatives beyond traditional waste disposal that add value to materials.

Masferrer said BIG Recyclers is looking for volunteers who want to help at the spoke. For more information email [email protected].

The Walla Walla Spoke, 240 C Street, will have its grand opening from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday, June 6, during which all glass drop-offs will be free. After the opening, the spoke will operate from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays.

The Walla Walla Spoke charges a quarter for each pound of glass at the time of drop-off or customers can choose an annual membership that will charge 15 cents a pound. The membership fee is tiered and depends on how many cases of glass the customer anticipates dropping off. Tier one is $60 with the anticipated drop-off worth 20 to 40 cases of glass or 250 to 525 pounds.

Hannah McIntyre can be reached at [email protected] or 509-526-8301.

In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the United States generated 12.3 million tons of glass containers, but only 3.1 million tons was recycled.

Business Reporter

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