From Empty Glass to Glass Half Full

By Pearson Gottschalk

“The world is actually in a sand shortage, so to be able to use recycled glass for coastal restoration would be a game-changer”

            It all started with a bottle of wine, according to Glass Half Full co-founder, Max Steitz. “We were sitting around, drinking a bottle of wine, and just kind of started imagining where that bottle was going to end up,” said Steitz. “Going to Tulane, you always are hearing, basically from the day you arrive, how bad the recycling is in Louisiana, and how there is no access to glass recycling even though the people here consume so many beverages in glass containers. It seemed really backward.”

            Louisiana indeed ranks dead last in the country in sustainability and the amount of waste that gets recycled, and New Orleans creates more trash than anywhere else in the state. Recycling has been a perpetual issue for the city, yet it has continuously been put on the back burner, receiving little funding, and resulting in an ineffective and inefficient system. “There are a million things that the city wants to do,” said Steitz, “but when budgets get tight, recycling is generally one of the first things to go.”

            Glass Half Full’s co-founders Steitz and Franziska Trautman, however, decided to take that issue head-on and start up their own glass recycling facility. Originally planned to be more of an after-school hobby, the pair acquired a second-hand glass recycling machine and set it up in a college backyard on Broadway Street. What they did not know, though, was that the community had been waiting for someone to step up and offer a place to donate glass. Within days of their first fundraiser, they had received enough glass to fill multiple dumpsters. 

            Annie Birkentall, Chief Financial Officer for Glass Half Full, believes she could have predicted the rapid growth of the organization. “Truthfully, I was not surprised [with how fast it grew]. I think because I used to work in supply chain for Chevron, I know that people were always trying to send us materials that they wanted to safely dispose of. And people around the city have been complaining for years about a lack of glass recycling.” But even she had to admit that Glass Half Full surpassed her expectations. “I don’t think Max and Fran were expecting a whole dumpster to be filled up within about three hours the first day we were open. I would have guessed maybe two days, but not three hours.”

            Prior to Glass Half Full opening their doors, New Orleans offered glass recycling drop-offs at one location, twice a month, with a strict 50 pounds per person limit. Then when the COVID-19 pandemic began, this recycling initiative was canceled indefinitely, leaving a city that uses so much glass with nowhere to put it except in the trash.

            “Very quickly, we realized how much pent-up demand there was, and how many other people in the city thought [glass recycling] was a problem. And then the end goal of using that recycled glass product as a material that actually benefits the community really struck a nerve with so many people in the community,” Steitz said. “So, we suddenly had all this glass, way more glass than we knew what to do with.”

            It quickly became apparent that a backyard was not going to cut it to keep up with the community’s demand. Glass Half Full found its next home in an uptown garage but outgrew that space just as fast. They have since moved into a warehouse in Desire and expanded their operations so they can keep pace with the constant donations and demand as best as possible.

            “The organization has grown a lot since I volunteered with them. They outgrew the original warehouse pretty quickly,” said Madeline Cargill, former intern, and research assistant for Glass Half Full. “There was so much interest in the glass recycling program that they needed more space to be able to do collections as well as the actual recycling process.”

            Birkentall also spoke on the need for more resources, saying “our short-term goal is getting a lot more machinery. While we have some, we are getting a lot more from the community and we aim to go from being able to process about a ton an hour to maybe 20 tons an hour. The community has helped us fundraise so much to get more machines, and keep the whole program going.”

            While the immense support for glass recycling in New Orleans is great, not everything has come so easily for the founders of Glass Half Full. Recycling initiatives are commonly funded by the government and require millions of dollars a year to keep them going. “We are mostly funded by small donations, especially at first,” explained Steitz. “It has very much been a community-funded initiative. So, with that comes a lack of capital to invest in some of the high-tech things that we need. Seeing all these people that want to recycle, we are trying our best to build out that infrastructure with less funding than what would typically be needed to run something like this.”

            Additionally, trying to get the New Orleans government involved with Glass Half Full’s ideas and take them seriously has been no easy task. “The community has been overwhelmingly great to us. Dealing with the government of New Orleans is a different story. Dealing with city hall, not the easiest thing in the world,” said Birkentall. “But government challenges are government challenges. They are to be expected, so nothing has been too much of a curveball. When you are starting a business, no one really gives you the rule book. The first year was very much me just piece mailing a lot of things together. It was very disjointed, the way that the state and the city both operate, but luckily we have been able to figure things out so far.”

            The idea for Glass Half Full does not stop with the development of a competent glass recycling system. Steitz’s dreams for the organization are much bigger than that. He hopes to use the recycled glass product, a form of sand, to help restore the rapidly disappearing Louisiana coastline and to help with flooding in the city.

            “The world is actually in a sand shortage, so to be able to use recycled glass for coastal restoration would be a game-changer,” said Cargill. “They also have grown the uses of their recycled glass for things like terrazzo flooring and for sandbags that they give out before storms.”

            “My research started with how does one make a very cost-efficient raw material that can be deblended into something like asphalt or concrete,” said Birkentall. “Most of what we have in New Orleans is rocks brought down from quarries in other states such as Ohio and Indiana. Because New Orleans is below sea level, we don’t have that bedrock to dive into as a natural resource. But diverting something away from a landfill can be an alternative solution to that.”

            The next step towards that coastal restoration goal requires intense research and funding, and luckily, Glass Half Full just recently partnered with Tulane scientists and received a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to put towards that research. They plan to work with a team of engineers and biologists to determine whether their glass sand can be used safely and effectively in coastal habitats. 

            “We are working on gaining the trust that this glass sand product is very touchable, it’s very soft. It feels exactly like natural sand,” explained Birkentall. “Having the public faith that they believe that we are creating a safe sand alternative that is not going to mess up the environment, that’s a bit of a challenge in itself.”

            The objectives for the coastal restoration grant include developing products that can generate revenue to support coastal restoration efforts, such as sand that can sequester oil and sand with improved erosion resistance, and obtaining approval from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to add their sand product to the list of approved Erosion Control Products. The research team also plans to confirm the environmental safety of the sand by testing how plants, microbes, and animals interact with it. They hope that through achieving these goals, they can also win over the public trust and make progress towards coastal restoration in not only southern Louisiana but in other threatened, coastal communities as well.

            “One of the cool things about glass recycling is that the sand that you get from glass is completely uniform, and it’s going to be the same regardless of where you source that glass from, whether it is China, New York, or New Orleans,” said Steitz. “So, if our testing proves successful, those are findings and research that can be replicated across the country, or even more so across the world.”

            The uses for recycled glass are endless, and glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled over and over again.  And thanks to Glass Half Full, over a million pounds of glass can be saved from landfills each year. “We always knew that government funding would take too long, so we’ve kept the perspective of, when we can work with them, that’s great,” said Steitz, “but until then, we are going to rely on the community (for funding) and just do it ourselves. It’s a long and tedious process, but it is 110% necessary and worth it.”

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