KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas Citians have among the lowest glass recycling rates in the country, even though there are two businesses here in desperate need of the product.
Some businesses, like Bar K on Berkley Rivefront Parkway, have welcomed recycling into their workers’ routine, even going as far as to make space for the bins in public areas to help encourage customers to recycle.
“We’ve seen over 33,000 pounds of glass be recycled through those bins out front,” Jason Snellenberger, program and events manager at Bar K, said. “Whether it’s from the restaurant here, or our folks right in the community.”
But across the metro, only about 200 businesses recycle glass and recycling among homeowners is at roughly 20%. In some cities, residential recycling reaches about 80%.
Every time an amber bottle ends up in a traditional recycling bin, there’s a company waiting to repurpose it that can’t. Just one recycled six pack of beer provides enough glass to fill a standard wall with fiberglass insulation.
“I know exactly where that glass jar and bottle is gonna go, and that it’s gonna go into either being made into a new bottle, or to an energy-saving product,” said Lydia Gibson, director of corporate development at Ripple Glass. “I’m confident in it.”
Keeping glass recycling local
In 2009, Ripple Glass was founded by Boulevard Brewing Company and other local companies, like Owens Corning, a company that manufactures fiberglass, to provide Kansas City with a steady stream of recycling.
Finding local customers to purchase the broken down glass proved difficult, so Ripple decided it was much easier and cheaper to export its recyclable product to a facility just a few miles down the road, rather than transporting it to buyers across the country.
“They [Owens Corning] were definitely an initial partner in getting us up off the ground,” Gibson said. “They continue to support us year after year.”
Gibson said the glass recycling market in Kansas City is a circular economy.
Every bottle that is sorted, crushed, and processed into cullet, a sand-like material made of grinded glass, is then shipped off to Owen Cornings for fiberglass insulation, or a bottle maker in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, who then sells those bottles back to Boulevard.
“So, the bottle that you put into one of our purple Ripple bins, in as little as 30 days, can end up as a new beer bottle back on the shelves, which you can enjoy in Kansas City, and put right back in a Ripple bin,” Gibson said.
“The fiberglass insulation market here is just 10 miles away, so we don’t have to go very far for our market customer. That product is sold locally in the metro and across the Midwest, and goes into homes and businesses to help improve energy efficiency.”
Since partnering with Owens Corning, Ripple Glass has begun to turn a profit, with much of that money being reinvested into upgrading its own facility.
Salvaging the Shards
FOX4 visited Ripple Glass’s facility on Crystal Avenue in Kansas City, where bulldozers dump hundreds of tons of glass onto conveyor belts that sort, shake, bake, and grind the shards into smaller and smaller pieces.
The conveyor belts guide glass through the facility, where workers scrape through mounds of fragments for contamination.
Facility workers spend entire shifts pulling out plastic bags, bottle labels, ceramic dishware, cardboard boxes, plungers, window frames, metal, and other materials that don’t belong in the purple bins.
Kansas City’s recycling stream tends to be much more clean compared to other cities, due to Ripple Glass’s separation and sorting methods. Ripple accepts glass at the 60-plus glass collection bins throughout the Kansas City area.
“Unfortunately, there’s always garbage with recycling because it has an end of life,” Miller said.
Miller said putting bins out that only accept glass, and not other types of recyclable materials, helps minimize contamination from boxes, paper, metal, and especially, food, that might end up on Ripple’s conveyor belt. However, he said finding trash in the mix is unavoidable.
With the high demand for recycled glass in the metro, he said he would like to see higher recycling rates in Kansas City.
Between 2016 and 2019, Kansas City recycled over 13,000 tons of glass each year. By 2020, citizens in the metro collected 14,700 tons of glass recycling, nearly a 13% increase.
According to Gibson, recycling rates are already down from last year, something she believes is an effect of inconvenience, space, and behavior changes during the pandemic.
“Our consumption was all at home, so we were generating all the waste that we were, in just one place,” she said. “[Now], people have gone back out in the community. They are eating and drinking at more restaurants.”
She said this is why Ripple is very strategic about where it places its purple bins, especially as people begin leaving their homes more.
“When we place our containers, we’re really looking for places that are convenient for folks, that they can integrate that glass recycling in their normal routine,” she said.
“We love the option of grocery stores or liquor stores, so people can connect that act of purchasing that item of glass, and then bringing it back to the store to complete that loop.”
And just across the state line in Roeland Park, Kansas, Ripple started its first curbside pick up program, in which residents do not have to pay extra for its services. Rather, it’s included in their city fees.
Gibson said she is hopeful the program will pick up and spread to other neighborhoods, as well.
“It’s a direct relationship with the city, testing out, seeing how it works,” she said.
Cash for Recycled Glass
In Kansas City, where there’s no bottle bill, or cash incentive for recycling bottles, the glass recycling rate is about 20%.
In states where you get money back for your bottles, the recycling rate is as high as 80%.
“It’s something new and different for a lot of folks, and a lot of times, it’s a space constraint,” Gibson said.
“How much space do you have behind the bar or in your alley to put a container? Not all of our infrastructure, our buildings, were designed around the idea that you need to have space to recycle, so that could be one of the biggest barriers.”
Miller said he believes a bottle bill would be beneficial in Kansas City, motivating more citizens to partake in recycling programs.
“The theory is [to get Kansas City] anywhere between 18 and 20% [recycling rate],” he said. “It’s not much in comparison to other states.”
The state of Missouri has never had a bottle bill, and efforts to introduce one in Kansas died in committee in 2008, but 10 states across the U.S. currently have bottle bills, including Michigan, Iowa, California, and Maine.
Bottle bills work by adding a small deposit on top of the price of a beverage, which is then refunded to the customer if they return the empty bottles or can for recycling. Essentially, companies charge a small fee for the borrowed container holding the beverage
In Missouri, every time a citizen returns a bottle, they receive 10 cents. The Michigan Bottle Deposit Law allows up to $25 in refunds to be given to a person per day, at a single location.
That’s 250 bottles per location, which is enough to fill about 42 walls with fiberglass insulation.
Gibson said a bottle bill would significantly improve residents motivation to recycle.
“Nationally, the average is about 30% or a little bit higher than that, but there are certainly places across the country that have redemption bills, or bottle bills, that have recycling rates upwards of 80%” she said.
She said Kansas City’s recycling efforts are trailing behind other cities, something she hopes can be remedied through convenience, education, and incentive.
“There are communities across the country that have got really excellent rates for glass, so we know it can be done,” she said. “We know we have a lot of room to grow in Kansas City.”
You can purchase your own purple Ripple bin on the Ripple Glass website, or in local grocery stores across the metro, like Price Chopper.