A Day on Glass Mountain

Written by Energy Corps member, Kiran Singh

“Do you have a bucket? Or at least a cardboard box? You’ll see why when you get here.” These words drifted over to my spot in the passenger seat from the phone fixed to Energy Corps member Kaleena Miller’s ear.  Dusti Johnson, Recycling Specialist at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, was already hard at work slinging glass at the Butte-Silver Bow landfill, and we had a lot of catching up to do.  We pull into the glass yard, parking next to a pile of glass bottles easily 12 feet high and 20 feet in diameter  – a pile that could easily fill my apartment twice over, and dwarfs our companion.  Kaleena, and I slather on sunscreen, pull on heavy-duty gloves, and join Dusti at the base of the pile.  We were here to recycle glass.

Glass recycling poses one of the greatest difficulties in materials recovery.  Establishing a successful glass recycling program is a monstrous achievement – an achievement most commonly reached in densely populated areas.  With an average of 6.86 people per square mile, Montana ranks 48th out of 50 for population density in the United States.  While there is much to be said for the freedom of such an empty state, Montana’s glass recycling options are limited because of it.  Glass is heavy.  Transporting glass is an expensive endeavor.  Many recycling companies outside of Montana offset the costs of glass recycling with the profits generated from recycling plastic and aluminum.  Within Montana, few counties have found a way to recycle glass in a cost effective way.  Silver Bow County is no stranger to this struggle.

At the end of 2011 the Butte-Silver Bow government chose not to renew its recycling contract with Headwater Recycling Cooperative, opting to establish recycling ties with another local recycling business.  In this process, glass recycling was limited to whatever BSB residents brought to the landfill situated outside of Butte; there is no glass pick-up system within city limits.  Following this announcement, a public outcry went out against the discontinuation of glass recycling.  Enter Energy Corps.

How did we end up sorting glass in the hot sun in late June?  The past six months have consisted of countless hours of hard work by community members, government employees, and recycling company managers, all working to answer two basic questions: Can we bring back glass recycling to Butte, and how can we improve recycling in our community in general?  I could go on infinitely of all the hard work put in, the avenues investigated to make this happen.  Throughout this process, we knew anything could happen with the future of recycling in Silver Bow County.  What had to happen was this: we had to get rid of the glass already sitting in the landfill, waiting to be recycled.

This giant pile of glass is the result of several years of glass collection, and it was time for it to go.  Our first priority has always been to recycle as much as possible without creating an undue financial burden for the city-county government.  This means sorting.  By hand.  Our small crew, aided by landfill employees separated out twenty tons of glass.  This glass, sorted for quality and color, will eventually make its way down to Wheat Ridge, Colorado, to the Rocky Mountain Bottling Company to be remade into new bottles.

Sifting through thousands of glass bottles in the hot sun has solidified two things for me: First, glass recycling is immensely complicated.  Second, the people dedicated to this project in Butte are generous, well-intentioned, and hard-working.  I am optimistic about Butte’s chances of restarting glass recycling because of this undaunted team.  We’re going to improve our current system.  We have to.  I’m too exhausted from this first go around to lift more buckets of salsa jars and iced tea bottles.

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