Local Glass Recycling on Hiatus

Flathead Recon Glass Recycling is looking for a new property to continue processing the region’s glass and help fund local nonprofits

By Micah Drew
David Fischlowitz of Flathead Glass Recycling scoops up a handful of pulverized glass at his start-up glass recycling operation in Columbia Falls on Sept 13, 2019. The small pile of glass before him represents all of the glass gathered at Under the Big Sky Music Festival, an event attended by 15,000 people in July 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For the last four years, Dave Fischlowitz has partnered with local nonprofits to collect glass bottles and jars from individuals and businesses. Through his business, Flathead Recon Glass Recycling, Fischlowitz has collected roughly 10,000 pounds of glass a week, pulverized it and converted it into landscaping material.

Earlier this year, however, Fischlowitz’s landlord sold the industrial property where he operated his glass pulverizer in Columbia Falls and he had to put the business on hiatus. Without the valley’s only glass recycling option, 10,000 pounds of glass is funneling into the landfill each week.

“At the moment, we’re without any glass recycling resources in the valley and it’s really frustrating,” Fishlowitz said. “I feel so strongly about this, and there’s so much material in the Valley, but right now there’s just no place I can afford to go.”

While glass is 100% recyclable, there are few glass bottling plants in Montana and the state’s residents and businesses do not generate “enough” glass to be an effective source for a full-scale recycling program, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. A single recycled glass jar can save enough energy to power a computer for half an hour, but the physical and environmental cost of transporting glass hundreds of miles out of state to a processing facility nullifies the benefits. Instead, it’s been up to local individuals and companies to fill the gap.

In the Flathead Valley, New World Recycling was the local option until it closed down in 2018. Fischlowitz, whose other business, Flathead Recon, salvages old materials from dismantled businesses as well as recycles vegetable-oil waste into diesel engine fuel, saw an opportunity to continue providing what he saw as an essential service to the community. He bought New World’s defunct equipment, fixed it up and began his own glass operation. Roughly 2,000 pounds of glass can be pulverized in an hour, he said, turning the shards into a smooth, tumbled product that he sold to landscapers by the bucket.

Beer bottles on the conveyer belt of a glass pulverizer at Flathead Glass Recycling, a start-up glass pulverizing and recycling operation in Columbia Falls on Sept 13, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“There wasn’t a high rate of return on the recycling business, but it was essential,” Fischlowitz said of his operation.

Running a one-man operation limited how much glass Fischlowitz could collect, pulverize and sell, and so early on he began to partner with local nonprofits to hold recycling events. Rather that setting up drop-off locations that could get overfilled or misused, hosting recycling events gave Fischlowitz better control over what was being collected and added a greater sense of community to the work. It also helped that each partner nonprofit would receive 80% of all donations from the events. Fischlowitz said that last year the recycling events raised roughly $30,000 for the partner nonprofits.

“It was such a great format, and I loved working with the nonprofits and being able to give back,” he said. “I think going forward, this would really need to be a full-time effort. Maybe operating as a nonprofit itself would be the route to go, and then contributions could directly fund and drive the business, but the first step on that path forward is finding a different location.”

Fischlowitz said with land values in the region skyrocketing over the last few years, properties that might have been on his radar now have million-dollar valuations. Instead, he’s having conversations with other industrial businesses, such as gravel pits, where he says a recycling operation would mesh well. Ultimately, though, he’d like to see a full-scale recycling facility that goes beyond just glass.      

People never stop asking him about recycling plastic in addition to glass, he said, a “huge animal” to take on, though he estimates that there is enough material residents want to recycle to justify a full-sized processing facility. Fischlowitz has also spent time researching ways to further repurpose glass and plastic, such as turning it into building material, however he doesn’t feel like the person who will be able to bring that entrepreneurial breakthrough to the area.  

“I think there’s a real opportunity in the Flathead Valley to harness the intellectual, manufacturing and financial horsepower here to find a way to recycle plastic and glass on a larger scale,” he said. “This isn’t a business with a high rate of return right now, but there could be a yet undiscovered way to make it worth someone’s time and money.”

For now, Fischlowitz is just hoping to find a new location to restart glass recycling by the end of the year so that he can return to keeping glass waste out of the landfill.

“I’ll be honest, I’m starting to run out of steam with the recycling,” he said. “But it’s important work. Someone has to do it.”

A bucket of pulverized glass at Flathead Glass Recycling in Columbia Falls on Sept 13, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon