Shattering Obstacles to Glass Recycling

By Beacon Staff

A little over five years ago, Cory Cullen, owner of New World Recycling, started the valley’s only curbside recycling service with a Subaru, a small trailer and a $5,000 loan. The business was meant to be just a holdover while he looked for jobs related to his photography degree.

He walked the streets of Whitefish handing out fliers offering $6 monthly pickup. “I figured I could sign up 1,000 customers easy,” he said. After several months, he had only 32. “That loan wasn’t going to get paid back very fast making like $180 a month,” Cullen jokes.

Most of the recyclable materials he picked up on his routes could be easily dropped at local recycling businesses. But, in order to offer glass recycling – the only business in the valley to do so – he drove heavy loads of glass more than 170 miles to Smelterville, Idaho, where it was being used in the reconstruction of I-90. After a few close calls on the road, he decided to build his own glass crusher.

“I threw six river rocks in a six-cubic-foot cement mixer and would basically grind it away to powder that disappeared in air; it wasn’t being reused, but at least it wasn’t going in the dump,” Cullen said.

While New World Recycling’s beginnings were modest, the fact that Cullen attempted the business – and has been able to continue and grow since – is remarkable in a state where few glass recycling options even exist.

The pulverized glass is a gravel like mixture of sand and dull edged glass chips.

Dusti Johnson, recycling and market development specialist for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in Helena, said the lack of glass recycling in Montana has more to do with missing business opportunities than lack of interest or concern.

“Recycled glass isn’t really a recycled product at all,” she said. “It’s a reuse process that takes something in one form and creates something reusable in another form.”

And, that secondary form, like any commodity, needs to have a market.

Montana doesn’t have a bottling plant – the most common buyer for used glass – so instead of making time-consuming and costly out-of-state treks, Johnson said, Montana needs to develop local markets. Cities such as Helena, Billings and Bozeman have already discovered how valuable and sustainable the market for cullet, a glass byproduct, can be.

Glass cullet is currently being used in everything from fish tanks to landscaping, and even products that rely upon aggregate, like sidewalks and floors, she said. The Missoula Federal Credit Union will use 300 to 400 tons of pulverized glass mixed with fly ash to form the lobby floor in its new 6,000-square-foot building. Glass aggregate will also be used in place of gravel and concrete throughout the building and property, right down to the landscaping.

“There are some amazing projects going on right now that make use of this product,” Johnson said, “but there is still an educational component missing in some communities. For anything to change, you need the entire community to get behind the movement.”

In the Flathead Valley, progress for New World Recycling has seemed frustratingly slow to Cullen who has big hopes for recycling efforts in the community: “At this rate I feel like I’d meet all my goals in about 420 years,” he said. “It’s hard to understand sometimes what keeps people from getting involved in recycling; they could probably pay what I charge in a month with change from their car.”

But the business has made bounds since its inception.

Cullen, still a single man show, has grown his customers to about 300, including several businesses. He now charges $10 a curbside pickup – monthly for residential customers – or $15 if it includes glass, and does bi-monthly, mass pickups at the malls in Whitefish and Kalispell.

His biggest growth – and gamble – came almost two years ago with another loan: $25,000 to buy a professional Andela glass pulverizer and another $7,000 for a conveyor attachment.

Cullen puts in earplugs to block out the clamorous racket of shattering glass before he hoists an 80-pound garbage can full of bottles into the mouth of the pulverizer. Located in front of his home on Lost Creek Road, the machine reduces bottles down to a gravel-like mixture of sand and glass – the full can is diminished to just a shovel-full of the shiny, dull-edged pieces within minutes. In a landfill, Cullen said, that reduction would take 10,000 years.

With the help of the pulverizer, he’s now averaging about 400, 32-gallon garbage cans of glass a month. He gives away or charges a small fee for anyone who wants to haul away portions of the ever-growing mound of crushed glass and sand.

Yet, Cullen estimates he’s only recycling about half of 1 percent of the used glass in the valley.

“I think it’s something that to some extent people haven’t been forced to think about here yet,” he said. “They haven’t seen the landfill close because it’s full. But, it’s something we all need to be thinking about.”

For more information on curbside recycling, call Cory Cullen, 257-7855.

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