NEW ORLEANS, La. — It's the tinkling of glass at maximum volume, a sound added to by restaurant owner Diane Heying.
“We try to recycle everything we have,” she said, while placing glass bottles into a recycling bin. “We end up recycling all the glass. We let our customers know we recycle. So, they in fact bring us glass.”
All of that glass is about to be sorted and transformed in an industrial neighborhood in New Orleans. It is the site of Glass Half Full, a glass recycling business that prioritizes its social mission over profits.
“We just had this passion and this idea,” said Max Steitz, one of the founders.
Glass Half Full started several years ago, created by then-students at Tulane University and located in a state, and nation, where glass recycling levels are low.
According to the U.S. EPA, of all the glass used in America, only 33.1% of it is recycled.
Compare that to Europe, where the rate of glass recycling is 74%, with some countries, like Switzerland and Germany, at 90%.
“We were kind of drinking wine, contributing to the glass waste that's produced in this city and wondering why it kept having to go to a landfill where it will never decompose and never do any good,” said Franziska Trautmann, one of the founders. “We thought, there must be some other way.”
So, they decided to do something about it.
“We kind of jumped into action,” Steitz said. “We had no waste management experience, no recycling experience.”
Two years – and 2 million pounds of glass later – Glass Half Full is self-sustaining and helping sustain the environment, by recycling 100,000 pounds of glass each month into sand and more.
Trautmann showed us what happens after a machine crushes the glass.
“It's a mixture of sand, gravel, and labels,” she said. “And after this, we will sift it, in order to get different sizes and remove all the trash.”
Some of it is then further refined.
“It's like powder,” Trautmann said. “This is good for sandblasting and it's also good for concrete.”
There are colorful glass bottles, which have been turned into terrazzo flooring and countertops.
Other old bottles, though, take on a greater need. They are turned into 25-pound sandbags for flood protection and given out to area residents for free.
“So, this is a sandbag that would be used for a residential home or a business, in order to protect them against the flood or a hurricane,” Trautmann said.
Other sand made from recycled glass is up for an even bigger mission: saving the coastline.
It's not hard to see how vulnerable the Louisiana coast is to erosion. Sinkage and rising seas due to climate change are only making it worse, but recycled glass could be the key to stopping it.
“This size, this coarser sand, is really good for coastal restoration applications because it's able to stay in place better and be more corrosion resistant,” Trautmann said.
Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, Glass Half Full is working with researchers at Tulane University to see if that coarser sand, made from recycled glass, can potentially save coastlines from erosion.