On a gray, blustery Friday afternoon, there are few places in Kansas City lonelier than the 3 Trails recycling center.
At one of three drop-off sites operated by Bridging the Gap, a local environmental advocacy organization, trailer-sized Dumpsters make up a lonely island in an axle-cracking, potholed parking lot that guards empty storefronts. A few cars dodge the splotches of sinking pavement as they head to Burlington Coat Factory, one of the few remaining businesses in the area. With the demolition of nearby Bannister Mall, this district is a study in decay.
Behind the chain-link fence, Tom Buck, the recycling-center manager, wears warm clothing and an overeager smile. He says his site gets a steady stream of residents depositing their cardboard, aluminum cans, and empty beer bottles. But on this afternoon, there's little evidence of that. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes pass without a single car.
Finally, a man in a minivan pulls in and parks alongside the Dumpsters for glass containers. He unloads his bottles quickly, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his red jacket. This facility isn't close to his home, he says, but he's willing to haul his waste here anyway. "We're committed to recycling," he says of his family.
He isn't typical. Kansas Citians recycle just 18 percent of their household trash. The national average is nearly twice that: 34 percent. Dig into those statistics a little deeper, and local residents are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to recycling glass.
The U.S. average: 28 percent. KC's average: 5 percent.
At 3 Trails, inside the Dumpster for brown glass, a heap of sticky beer bottles smells like wet dog. There's plenty of Miller Lite and Budweiser. But the squat bottles from Boulevard Brewing Company — the Pale Ale, the Unfiltered Wheat — outnumber the national brands.
On this same afternoon, at the local brewer's production plant 20 miles north, a tour group looks through an enormous window down at the flashy, high-tech bottling line where 138,000 barrels of beer were packaged last year. Above metallic conveyors, nozzles fill 500 bottles every minute, the tour guide boasts to the group.
Only a tiny portion end up in recycling Dumpsters like the one at 3 Trails. But Boulevard, the tour guide tells the audience of beer fans, is trying to change that.
"How many of you live in Kansas City?" he asks.
Nearly everyone in the crowd raises a hand.
"How many of you recycle?"
Half a dozen hesitant hands go up.
"How many of you think it's a pain in the butt to recycle glass?"
Nothing. Then, after a few awkward seconds, three hands.
The tour guide launches into a sales pitch that has nothing to do with beer. The top brass at Boulevard, he says, have come up with a new business model that hasn't been tried anywhere else in the nation and will keep more beer bottles out of the landfill. Ripple Glass, he says, will soon have bright-purple recycling bins dedicated to glass, with at least one within five minutes' driving distance of every city resident. Ripple, he explains, will take those bottles, grind them down and turn them over to a local Fiberglas manufacturer, which will effectively turn six-packs into insulation.
Before he's done talking, the tour group has tuned out. A woman shifts her purse from one arm to the other. A young couple cast impatient glances down at the bottling line. A guy in a baseball cap ambles away to study a poster-sized picture of the Boulevard staff.
"So, uh, you want to try some beer?" the guide says, slapping his hands together as if to break a trance.