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The Glass Recycling System Is Broken—but Franziska Trautmann Is on a Mission to Fix It

In areas that don't accept glass recycling, tossing a bottle in your bin can wreak havoc on the planet. Here's how Franziska Trautmann is combatting the issue.

Written by
Eve Robinson

If you live in the United States, you probably live in a town or city with a recycling program. But just because you have a recycling program doesn't mean that your county accepts all recyclable materials.

Glass, steel, and aluminum cans are recyclable materials that may never reach a recycling facility depending on where you live. Only 35 states have glass processing facilities. If you live in a state that doesn't accept glass for recycling, tossing one glass bottle in your recycling bin can wreak havoc on the environment, contaminating the entire recycling bin and possibly redirecting the whole load straight to the landfill. 

New Orleans, Louisiana, is one such city that lacks accessible glass recycling initiatives, making it difficult for residents to correctly dispose of glass products. That issue didn’t go unnoticed by Franziska Trautmann, who took matters into her own hands and co-founded Glass Half Full, a grassroots organization that collects NOLA’s glass and turns it into eco-construction material.

In this week’s episode of Good Together, Brightly’s CEO Laura Wittig turned the microphone to Franziska Trautmann to talk about all things glass recycling and waste management. 

Glass Half Full’s Origins

Trautmann was a student at Tulane University when she and her co-founder decided glass recycling was a must for the city. As a Louisiana native, she grew up without adequate glass recycling. The norm was to dispose of glass as you would any other non-recyclable material. Trautmann wanted to challenge that norm and began brainstorming ways to turn glass "waste" into a resource. 

"I didn't have curbside recycling," she recalled. "My family would have to drive 20 to 30 minutes away and drop it off somewhere. And even after that… it's hard to determine what's actually happening to those recyclables."

With Glass Half Full, she wanted to bridge that gap between the mysterious recycling process and recyclers themselves.

No place was a more fitting starting spot than New Orleans. The city, which is a nexus for southern culture—particularly one that emphasizes a community-oriented mindset—was a supportive foundation for Glass Half Full. The company started as a crowdfunding campaign in early 2020. "It had to be a crowdfunding campaign to get the community involved and get the community behind it," Trautmann shared.

And that community support paid off. Through the investment of the community, Glass Half Full has been able to evolve into a fully-fledged operation that repurposes 98% of its glass intake. 

Understanding American Recycling Systems

Throughout the episode, Trautmann returns to the importance of education, transparency, and action. Education begins with understanding the United States’ typical approach to recycling.

Most systems perform single-stream recycling, which is then brought to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for sorting. Understanding what happens at these MRFs gives insight into why so many facilities have banned glass and other potentially sharp or dangerous materials from entering the single-stream system altogether.

"When you introduce glass into that bin with your paper, with your plastic, or cardboard, or aluminum, glass can become a really kind of dangerous contaminant," Trautmann says, "[Glass] gets broken, it can be sharp. So it's hard for facilities to then separate that material out."

It makes sense, then, that in an effort to protect employees, and save time and money, that facilities would completely scrap glass or aluminum materials. But that choice doesn't go without an environmental toll.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States only recycled 31.3% of glass products in 2018. The remaining 7.6 million tons accounted for 5.2% of all municipal solid waste (MSW) that year. If recycling facilities aren't equipped to handle hazardous materials like glass, a staggering amount ends up discarded in landfills. There, a single glass bottle may take 4,000 years to break down. 

The dual-stream system, which involved pre-sorted materials before pickup, was abandoned by most state recycling facilities in the 1990s for the lower-cost alternative of single-stream recycling. When you introduce companies such as Glass Half Full, you have facilities that are able to specialize in recycling one kind of material and save a large portion from wasting away.

Other facilities specialize in recycling steel, aluminum cans, or other hard-to-recycle materials. Some even offer financial compensation. In Alabama, rural recycling facilities pay by the pound for steel and aluminum products. These systems can reduce the 10.5 and 2.7 million tons of steel and aluminum MSW that entered landfills in 2018.

The Benefits of Turning Glass Into Sand

The benefits of recycling glass are twofold: for one, it keeps glass out of the landfill. Additionally, recycling glass into sand provides more resources for undoing the effects of beach erosion along rivers, coasts, and deltas.

In a state like Louisiana, which is threatened by a rising sea level of up to two inches by 2050, turning everyday items in Louisiana households into a tool for combatting and supporting Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem is an easy-to-join and effective measure in favor of the environment. 

For Trautmann, Louisiana is just the beginning. The need for adequate recycling extends far beyond New Orleans. And much like any 21st-century company, social media proved an instrumental tool in expanding the word of Glass Half Full beyond Louisiana.

Despite her initial hesitation, Trautmann admitted that utilizing social media was a fun and beneficial step in the company’s growth. "I owe it all to my co-founder, Max [Steitz]," she recalls "I [thought] we were too old for TikTok."

But don’t forget that old saying that "modern problems require modern solutions." In a social media world where anything goes, there’s certainly the space and the audience for some eco-focused content. It only helped in Trautmann’s mission to foster a community out of Glass Half Full.

"We truly have everyone involved in listening in on how they can be more sustainable, and how they can be more ethical in their lives. And it's just such a beautiful thing to see," she says. "At our glass recycling drop-off, I see every type of person bringing me their glass… rich, poor, old, young. It's just something to see people really getting involved on all levels."

Trautmann sees the importance of the community, and the community sees the importance of her organization’s mission. Regardless of how localized the initiative is, support like the kind seen in Trautmann’s work certainly looks like a glass half full.