Mom-and-pop startups in North Idaho are aspiring to divert some of the thousands of tons of glass bottles dumped into landfills each year.
Glass recycled in Spokane County is hauled to Seattle to make new bottles, but in the Panhandle of Idaho bottles and jars remain a part of the waste stream.
That came as a shock to Melissa and Ben Mello when they moved to Coeur d’Alene from Chicago a year and a half ago.
“It was like, they don’t recycle glass? That’s crazy,” said Melissa Mello, who grew up in Kootenai County. “The places where we’ve lived have always recycled everything.”
The couple – she’s a special education teacher and he’s an airport designer for the FAA – decided to invest in a solution.
They bought a $10,000 glass pulverizer, found a warehouse to lease and formed a nonprofit business, Coeur d’Alene Glass Recycling Co., in partnership with Kootenai Environmental Alliance.
By paying tax-deductible membership fees, residents can unload their bottles on the Mellos, who will crush them into small chunks and fine sand. Those are products that can be sold for mosaic artwork, aquarium décor, landscaping, construction material and other applications.
“There’s tons of uses,” Mello said. “It could be used to sand the roads in Coeur d’Alene. I mean, how cool would that be for the city to say we use locally recycled glass to sand our roads?”
Landscapers are discovering tumbled glass makes an attractive ground cover or water feature accent. Mello said she could see it incorporated into the new design for McEuen Park downtown.
“We want to use the product as locally as possible,” she said.
Terra Cressey, of Sandpoint, has a similar goal. The dental hygienist started GlassRoots Recycling in 2011 and has stockpiled thousands of bottles from residents and businesses.
“It’s been wonderful. A little overwhelming,” Cressey said.
She uses three custom-made, hand-operated grinders to produce cullet, a softened glass that can be safely handled, as well as glass sand and powder. It’s sorted by color – white, olive, green, yellow, brown and blue – or mixed for a rainbow effect.
In the spring, she is inundated with demand for her product. Customers want it for jewelry, interior design projects, garden borders, stepping stones, concrete countertops, sandboxes, well fill, water filtration, sandblasting abrasive, reflective paint and more.
“You can do almost anything with this glass; it’s just amazing,” Cressey said. “I’ve had people put it in their concrete patios, and their patios just sparkle.”
Homegrown recycling ventures like these are part of the solution to the glass trash dilemma, said Suzanne Tresko, recycling coordinator for Spokane Regional Solid Waste System.
“Glass is a pickle in recycling,” Tresko said. “It’s heavy; it costs a lot to transport.”
The city of Spokane began stockpiling bottles in 2008 when it was losing money on glass recycling.
Now most of the glass in the area is made into new bottles. California-based eCullet Inc. takes bottles from Spokane’s recycling drop-off sites and from curbside collections handled by Waste Management and hauls it to a plant in Seattle.
The company is willing to study the economics of taking glass from Kootenai County as well, said Charles Porta, vice president of marketing and sales.
The Mellos hope their nonprofit venture will at least provide residents an alternative to tossing their bottles in the trash.
They are charging $10 a month for drop-off service and $15 a month to collect the glass in an old Chevy pickup they bought. They’ve signed up about 40 members so far and hope to start collections in March with 100 to 150 customers.
Longtime resident Bridget Hill signed up to have her bottles picked up by the Mellos for $180 a year, which she will write off as one of her regular charitable donations.
“I’m impressed with this young couple to come up with this idea and pursue it,” Hill said.