All images courtesy Momentum Recycling
By Eric Peterson
In 2015, the state’s recycling rate for glass bottles was a measly 6.3 percent, way below the national rate of 26.4 percent. About 320,000 tons were thrown away statewide, 20,000 tons were recycled, and 300,000 tons ended up in landfills.
But that all changed with the arrival of Momentum Recycling in Broomfield in 2017. In its first year of operations in Colorado, the Salt Lake City-based company diverted more than 40,000 tons of glass waste back into the supply chain for the two bottle plants on the Front Range: Rocky Mountain Bottle Company in Wheat Ridge and Owens-Illinois in Windsor. With that, Colorado’s glass-bottle recycling rate jumped to more than 20 percent.
Momentum Recycling CEO John Lair says glass recycling was previously held back by the lack of a processing facility in Colorado. Landfills often used waste glass as cover and lining material, deemed a “beneficial use” by the state.
“In the absence of the facility we have right now, they didn’t have any options,” says Lair. “They did the best they could with the situation they had at the time. Now there is better and higher use.”
Before Momentum turned on the lights, sorting and processing fell on materials recovery facilities (MRFs). “Bottle manufacturers can’t take it when that’s dirty,” says Lair. “They can’t put it in the furnace. That’s why it wasn’t recycled before.”
Momentum now transforms it into cullet, refined and crushed glass that is furnace-friendly for the manufacturers. “You can think of it as refining at our plant,” says Lair. “Our infeed material is very, very dirty. If you look at it, it doesn’t look like glass, but it’s 80 percent glass.”
Momentum sells its cullet to Owens-Illinois and Rocky Mountain Bottle Company (which is a joint venture of MillerCoors and Owens-Illinois). The two plants allow for a unique closed-loop system to take root in Colorado.
“That glass it being turned back into a bottle in Colorado,” says Lair.”We’re definitely having the best impact on the environment. Using glass in any other way is no longer appropriate.”
Rocky Mountain Bottle Company’s facility in Wheat Ridge has three furnaces that are operated nonstop for a decade or more. It’s inefficient to turn them off, as they melt glass at temperatures around 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
“On average, the facility produces 3 million to 4 million bottles a day, 360 days a year,” says William Dillaman, Rocky Mountain Bottle Company’s plant manager. “We’re pretty much running 24/7.”
The plant has long sourced cullet from various recycling operations in Colorado, and still does. It also recycles scrap from its operations. “Typically, pre-Momentum, we would purchase 25,000 to 26,000 tons a year of sorted glass,” Dillaman explains. “A lot of that was mixed color. It wasn’t doing us any good for our flint [clear glass] furnace.”
He adds, “A lot of that is now going to Momentum. They’re better able to clean it up and color-sort it.”
Momentum will provide the plant with an additional 30,000 tons in 2018; colored glass is shipped to Owens-Illinois in Windsor. “Today, we’re projecting 57,000 tons of post-consumer glass [for 2018],” says Dillaman. “That is a high-water mark for us.”
And that means less energy used along the entire supply chain. “There’s a big advantage in melting glass a second time,” says Dillaman. “We don’t have to fire the furnaces as hard. For every 3 percent additional cullet, we can remove 1 percent of energy.”
For the flint furnace, that means a 5 percent drop in energy use, he notes, as the cullet has increased from 10 percent to 25 percent of the mix. “We’ve been able to reduce energy use on that furnace and prolong its life.”
For the amber glass furnaces, the mix is about 30 percent cullet, some of which is shipped from Michigan via rail, a costly proposition. Since Momentum opened in Broomfield, the Michigan cullet has dropped from about 400 tons a week to 200 tons a week.
Dillaman says there is plenty of room to grow. “Owens-Illinois operated furnaces in Europe that are as high as 70 percent cullet. We can get there, we just can’t get it in Colorado.”
Not yet, that is, but Momentum is looking to change that. The company is now focused on getting more bottles into recycling bins in Colorado. “It’s what we focus on most right now,” says Lair. “The good news is both Rocky Mountain Bottle Company and Owens-Illinois have demand for more broken glass, so we can grow.”
It is viable to ship glass about 200 miles to Broomfield; beyond that, transportation costs are too high. “The good news is there’s no glass being collected within a couple hundred miles that’s not being recycled,” says Lair. “The bad news is there’s lots of waste glass being generated along the Front Range that’s not finding its way into a recycling bin.”
Funding is a big issue. “We need more infrastructure and more education,” says Lair. “We are going to step up to the plate and provide more of both.”
Momentum is currently in discussions with a number of municipalities to launch recycling. Open-market communities that allow residents to choose from several waste collectors are primary targets. “That tends to be where we see this issue,” says Lair. As people pay an additional charge for a recycling bin, “There is a penalty people pay to recycle in these open-market communities. The recycling rates are incredibly low.”
On a national level, households with automatic curbside collection programs recycle 40 percent more materials than those that have opt-in programs, according to data from the Recycling Partnership. That’s more than 100 extra pounds of recycling per household per year.
In places with a single contracted hauler or city-run system, costs are lower and recycling is higher. “The other side of that coin is you no longer have a choice.”
Lair aims to set up drop-off sites on city-owned land in communities without curbside recycling, as Momentum has implemented in several municipalities in Utah. “There’s a lot of pieces that go into that,” he says. “In the meantime, all this glass is going to the landfill, so we’re going to provide free public drop-off sites.”
Depending on the proximity to Broomfield, Momentum might cover all costs; cities that are more than 50 miles will need to subsidize some of the transportation costs. “We were immediately able to get that recycling rate up into the mid-20s,” says Lair. “We know we could do better than that, we just need to get more glass in the door.”
The Broomfield facility’s capacity is about 75,000 tons a year, and it could be expanded if needed. “We hope we have that problem,” he says.
Eric Peterson is a freelance writer and editor in Denver. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org