The story of your beer bottles after they hit the recycling bin

At Ripple Glass, bottles are dumped and sorted before they are readied for a new purpose.

Less than five percent of glass in the metropolitan area used to get recycled, but a chance conversation over glasses of beer changed that.

View our video story on how Midtown bottles are recycled into fiberglass insulation

About six years ago, Todd Yoho, operations director at Owens Corning, was drinking with Midtown resident Mike Utz, an engineer at Boulevard Beer Co.

They were in the brewery tasting room after a beer plant tour when Utz mentioned that its millions of used beer bottles should be recycled.

Yoho said his firm badly needed recycled glass to make fiberglass at its Fairfax plant.

Scientists and engineers soon talked shop, probably without drinking beer.

Boulevard went together with other investors, DST Systems and UMB Bank, and created Ripple Glass and its $5 million glass processing plant in east Kansas City.

Now about 20 percent of metro area glass is recycled, Ripple has expanded to other cities including Lawrence, Kan., Jefferson City and Springfield, Mo.

“One thing led to another,” Yoho said. “It’s been getting better and better as they go along.”

Ripple Executive Director Stacia Stelk stands in a mountain of plate glass that will be recycled at the Kansas City plant.

In the fall of 2009, Ripple started with 50 purple bins in the metropolitan area, where it now has 109.

Dump glass into a Midtown bin outside the Home Depot by the Costco, and it starts a journey. Trucks load it and rumble to the big processing plant at 1642 Crystal Ave.

Stacia Stelk, Ripple executive director, was there when one arrived recently and started to dump its load on hard concrete.

“Stay back,” she said, “it’s going to be loud and it’s going to bounce.”

Glass bottles hit with an ear-splitting screech and big, vibrating machines started work on them.

On one early conveyer belt, a person removes things like plastic and yard gnomes. An optical scanner identifies brown glass and a puff of air knocks it elsewhere. It turns out, the brown glass used in Boulevard bottles is not the best for making into fiberglass and most is shipped to a plant in Oklahoma. There it once again becomes Boulevard beer bottles.

At the processing plant, the glass rides on conveyer belts, becomes broken shards and eventually pieces almost as small as grains of sand.

Then trucks take it to the Owens Corning fiberglass plant. It goes into what look like grain silos, mixes with other ingredients and cooks in a furnace at about 2,600 degrees.

Then the molten material is shot with a roar through a long row of trade-secret heads that shape it into fiberglass, and soon pink fiberglass is rolling down a conveyer belt ready for packaging.

The recycled glass called collet melts at a lower temperature than regular glass and saves the company money on energy, Yoho said, ultimately saving consumers money in heating and cooling their homes.

And fiberglass gets shipped for sale at Home Depot stores like the one by the Midtown ripple bin.

“Everybody wins,” Yoho said.

Ripple now also receives glass from throughout the region including Iowa, Arkansas and Kansas.

In the metropolitan area, the bin that produced the most glass last year was at Deer Creek Marketplace at 135th Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park.

But before that, the most productive bin was at Corinth Square at 83rd Street and Mission Road in Prairie Village. It was closed for construction some last year but is expected to rebound this year. A bin at Prairie Village Shops, 71st Street and Mission Road, was fourth most productive last year.

Midtown overall hosts more bins than any section of the metro and its combined locations collect more glass than the top three bins elsewhere combined, Stelk said.

But she is still on a quest for big new glass production sites – bars, shopping centers, whatever.

“My job is basically to get more glass,” she said. “Why throw away something that has a lot of energy pent up in it.”

This video shows the process from recycling bin to fiberglass being made