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Turning wine bottles back into sand

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After oxygen, silicon is the most prevalent naturally occurring substance in the Earth's crust. Add two parts of oxygen to one part silicon (a process that happens naturally there), and you get silicon dioxide, a core component of most rocks and sand. Heat up that sand to about 3,090 degrees, and it becomes a liquid, hardening into glass when it cools.

Though glass is derived from a naturally occurring material, once that substance is transformed into bottles, it is hardly a boon to the environment. Each year in the U.S., people throw away some 8 million tons of glass, a bulky part of landfills that can last ages. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that only about a third of glass that Americans buy gets recycled.

The Rotary Club of Chelan, Washington, found an opportunity to mine some of that glass out of the waste stream. Its 911 Glass Rescue project turns used bottles and broken glass back into sand that can be used in gardening, landscaping, playgrounds, and biological water filter projects. The club partnered with local agencies and businesses to buy a glass pulverizing machine from Andela Products. Company President and CEO Cynthia Andela is not just a glass industry expert; she also happens to be a member of the Rotary Club of Richfield Springs, New York. "I've been a Rotarian for years, and I've been selling these machines for years," says Andela. "But this Chelan club project, which unites both worlds, made me realize just how much Rotary can do."

Club members told us the story of how they make sand from unwanted glass.

Washington wine country

Our community in north central Washington includes the city of Chelan and the community of Manson, both cleaved to the shore of glacier-fed Lake Chelan, one of the country's deepest freshwater lakes. In addition to boasting enormous natural beauty, the lake's other main attraction is that it's in Washington's wine country. Nestled between the foothills of the Cascades mountain range and the Columbia River, the area's rich mountain soil and moderate air temperatures create a lush valley ideal for viniculture. The lake's shores are dotted with more than 30 wineries and some 300 acres of vines. Thousands of visitors annually enjoy the wines and the scenery. And residents do their part to support the local economy, imbibing Lake Chelan's wines. Our club meets at Tsillan Cellars, which has a great tasting room.

The landfill problem

Residents of Chelan, a town of a little more than 4,000, were concerned about what happens to all those used wine bottles and other glass. For the most part, the bottles end up in a landfill, as is the case throughout the U.S. And they sit there for a very long time; government environmental agencies have theorized that landfill glass could take a million years to decompose. Many municipalities across the country have eliminated glass recycling in recent years for multiple reasons, including that glass shards contaminate paper and plastic recycling streams. Chelan stopped glass recycling in 2018, and many residents and business leaders were not pleased. While the ideal environmental solution is to manufacture new glass bottles and jars from used glass, that requires a glass processing plant. Chelan is more than a three-hour drive from the closest glass processor, in Seattle. Transporting glass that far would leave a huge carbon footprint. That would be part of the problem, not the solution.

The project’s leader Julie McCoy, left, and Megan Clausen, a local college student who began making sand from a single-bottle crusher while she was in high school.

A local solution

If recycling old bottles into new ones was out of the question, there had to be another way. Our club, long active in the community, was determined to find one. In 2020, the club's Preserve Planet Earth Committee decided to draw on a pilot project started by two amazing local high school students, Megan Clausen and Devyn Smith. These kids were making sand from a single-bottle crusher they purchased. It was a laborious operation run out of the garage at Clausen's home. But committee members were impressed. If replicated on a larger scale, this project potentially offered a local solution to a local problem.

Rotary connection

The extended COVID-19 lockdown provided ample opportunity for club members to research how we might upscale the pilot project. This ultimately led us to Andela Products, an upstate New York manufacturer of glass-pulverizing and crushing equipment. Further investigation revealed that the company's principal, Cynthia Andela, was the 2019-20 president of the Rotary Club of Richfield Springs, New York. When we discovered this coincidence, we knew the partnership was meant to be.

Anne Brooks, who helps the Rotary Club of Chelan with the project, watches the glass-pulverizing machine.

Forming a team

We were intrigued by Andela Products’ long experience selling its machines to small Caribbean municipalities with limited landfill space and the need to import expensive natural sand for their beaches. The Caribbean model might be replicated around Lake Chelan. With this notion, 911 Glass Rescue was born. This nonprofit club affiliate is led by a board of directors the club elects. Partnerships with the city of Chelan and Chelan County Solid Waste Management, which secured a grant from the Washington Department of Ecology, provided most of the funding. Fifteen local wineries signed on as sponsors. With the $150,000 fundraising goal met, the machine was soon en route from upstate New York to Washington.

‘People just keep coming back’

Our club members helped install the machine in June 2021, working with an Andela representative. The operation is housed at a waste transfer station in Chelan. Each Saturday morning, our club members and local volunteers collect used glass from a long line of arriving vehicles. People dropping off glass pay a modest fee to help defray operating costs. The club sells the end product, pulverized glass sand and aggregate, in buckets. Residents buy them for landscaping, gardening and decorative projects. The community project fills everyone with pride in their part in rescuing all that used glass from the landfill. People just keep coming back, because they believe in it.

Chelan club member Brian Patterson unloads used wine bottles into the glass pulverizing machine

Crushing it

Our club has dubbed the crusher Paulie the Pulverizer, after Rotary founder Paul Harris. Volunteers feed the collected glass into a hopper. A conveyor belt transports it to the pulverizer, where spinning hammers break up the glass as it gets pushed through a vortex — similar to a kitchen blender. Proprietary Andela technology rounds off the sharp edges of the glass pieces, making them safe to handle. While the work is labor intensive, it is also rewarding. As of mid-September, Paulie has crushed more than 316,000 pounds of glass — that’s the equivalent of about 316,000 wine bottles diverted from the landfill.

Just like real sand

The machine separates the end product into two sizes: aggregate and sand. Nonglass items like labels, corks, and lids are deposited into a separate trash bin. The end product is just like the main component of all glass: In shape and substance, it is sand once again. Entirely safe to handle, the manufactured sand runs through your fingers just like mined sand. It makes an ideal mulch, as it helps water drain, repels pests, and acts as a thermal blanket in winter.

A community’s project

The Lake Chelan community is solidly behind our club’s project. We promote it through local radio, newspapers, and social media. Our team hired Megan Clausen, one of the local students who inspired the project. Now a college student, she helps with record keeping, volunteer coordination, and social media. The broad community support bodes well for the long-term sustainability of 911 Glass Rescue, an idea born of Rotary. People wanted to be a part of the solution, and now we have one.

This story originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

Members of the Environmental Sustainability Rotarian Action Group can help your Rotary club or district plan environmental projects and publicize your efforts.