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.
"Yeah!" The crowd roars back to life.
Three top executives from Boulevard are banking millions that they can make Kansas City as enthusiastic about recycling as they are about beer.
John McDonald is distracted.
Dressed in well-worn jeans and a collarless blue shirt, the founder and president of Boulevard Brewing Company skips the small talk on a casual Friday morning. As he strides to his office, he doesn't mention the high-tech features of Boulevard's top-of-the-line production facility and says nothing about the chic event space for wedding and receptions. No, he wants to boast about a small Belgian visitor.
Even the guy's name — Jean-Marie Rock — makes the gray-haired McDonald grin.
"You ever heard of Orval?" he asks.
In his office, which isn't much bigger than the average cubicle, he pulls a hardcover book from a shelf and settles on a page with a picture of a stone monastery. In two decades as a craft brewer, McDonald has traveled all over the world examining and admiring the creation of beer. The destination he's talking about is the Orval complex in southern Belgium, which looks like something from a fairy tale. Today, though, Rock has traveled from Europe — from Orval — to work with Boulevard's brewers. The goal: Craft a special concoction for the company's popular Smokestack Series. For McDonald, it's like a visit from the pope.
The timing is appropriate. November 17 marks the 20th anniversary of Boulevard, which traces its origin to the day that McDonald loaded a keg of Pale Ale into the back of his pickup truck and drove it two blocks to Ponak's Mexican Kitchen. Now it's the eighth-largest craft brewer in the nation, with a production facility that can pump out 700,000 barrels a year.
But McDonald doesn't dream of extending his reach. He wants to deepen his roots.
"What appealed to me most was to be a small, local and, hopefully one day, regional brewery," he says. "I wish we sold all the beer we make in the surrounding four or five states — that's the way it should be. In a perfect world, there would be 200 1-million-barrel breweries, all with regional ties. That makes more sense."
McDonald, then, isn't a bean-counting businessman or even a single-minded beer fanatic. He's taken by the history, the community, the full social context of the brewing industry. Even his office has the feel of a mini history exhibit.
On the top shelf, there's a small section of leatherbound journals. They were a gift, McDonald explains as he handles them gingerly. When he started the brewery, one of his first visitors was an elderly man, both of whose legs had been amputated at the knee, who took a taxi from his nursing home to the upstart Boulevard plant. After a few friendly encounters, Bob Werkowitch revealed to McDonald that he had been a master brewer for George Muehlebach Brewing Company, a Kansas City icon that produced local beer from 1868 until the company was sold to Schlitz in 1956.
"That's Bob," McDonald says, pointing to a framed picture of the Muehlebach crew that hangs over his desk.
That's not the only artifact from the old brewery. From his bookshelf, McDonald grasps with both hands a thick antique bottle imprinted with "Muehlebach" in raised lettering. "You can bet this was made in Kansas City," he says. "It went to the brewery, they filled it up, packed it in wooden crates with straw, and the only thing that was thrown away was the cork. And then it was returned to the brewery and refilled as many times until it was broken."
When McDonald started Boulevard Brewing, 16 years after Muehlebach shut down, there weren't any local bottlemakers left. He had to order from Saint-Gobain factories in Oklahoma and Wisconsin. By then, the nature of the American beer industry had changed, too. "You've got three giant brewers that make 85 percent of all the beer consumed, and then you've got another 7 or 8 percent shipped from foreign countries," he says. The days of bringing the bottle back to the brewer were history. Instead, empty beer containers ended up in landfills.
That irked McDonald. He dodges being labeled a tree hugger, but he doesn't discount the ethic. "I grew up in a small town in western Kansas and had a sense that we were kind of going down the wrong path over the years, but I wouldn't say I'm an environmentalist," McDonald says. "I'm more of a practical person who hates waste."
When Bridging the Gap received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000 to help three local businesses understand and improve their environmental footprints, Boulevard volunteered to be one of its subjects. Mike Utz, Boulevard's plant manager, says the team determined that the brewer was trashing a lot of glass. "If you're doing 30,000 bottles an hour, you've got maybe 10 percent breakage," he says. "At that kind of volume, you're talking 1 ton per week in waste glass."
And that was just inside the plant. Once the beer hit shelves, consumers were tossing the bottles in the trash. Boulevard was selling upward of 30 percent of its beer in Kansas City, but only a tiny fraction of bottles was being recycled. "We were effectively putting 8 million bottles into the waste stream because they weren't being recycled," Utz says.
McDonald, a guy who wanted to bring good beer to his community, knew his company was indirectly adding to the area's trash problem. Far before the notion of Ripple Glass surfaced, he knew he didn't want to be on that side of history.
The timelines of Boulevard Brewing and Deffenbaugh Industries intersect in November 1989. The same month that McDonald hauled the first keg of Pale Ale in his truck, Deffenbaugh picked up its first load of recyclables in Lenexa.
Along with newsprint and cans, the Shawnee-based company collected residents' beer bottles and pickle jars. But from that very first day, glass screwed up the whole curbside system.
"We hate glass so much, I don't even like talking about it," says Tom Coffman, Deffenbaugh's spokesman, his weary tone edged with equal notes of humor and frustration.
By any assessment, glass presents a problem. It's more suited to reuse than plastic, which breaks down during reprocessing and can't be returned to its original form. A plastic bottle, therefore, becomes carpet fibers or playground equipment. Glass is far more durable.
"Glass is the most recyclable material," explains Steve Russell, St. Louis area manager for Strategic Materials, one of the nation's largest recycling companies. "You can make a food-grade container, say, a beer bottle, recycle it to make another beer bottle over and over and over again."
The steps along that process are messy, though. "We had a lot of breakage along the routes," Coffman says of Deffenbaugh's glass hauling. "It was a huge nuisance factor for customers. We had some significant workers' comp issues, and we started getting other materials turned away by the mills because there was broken glass in it."
Deffenbaugh invested $10 million in a recycling facility that sorted paper, plastic and aluminum, and then bundled those materials into refrigerator-sized cubes. The cubes were loaded onto trucks bound for the recycling market. But glass was a different story. No company in Kansas City — or anywhere, for that matter — can reuse glass unless it's sorted, washed and ground into cullet (quarter-sized cuts of product that can be remelted and reused. And no company in Kansas City — or anywhere within several hundred miles — was processing the glass, either.
"Frankly, if they [Deffenbaugh] wanted to, they could have done it years ago," McDonald says of a glass-processing plant.
But the company didn't, and glass became a transportation headache. The closest facilities processing household glass into cullet were in St. Louis and Oklahoma. That took the financial wind out of the recycling sails. Glass is dirt-cheap, explains Joseph Cattaneo, president of the Glass Packaging Institute. "It's sand," he says. "It's not the same commodity as oil or bauxite for aluminum or plastic."
So when Deffenbaugh's trucks pulled up to Strategic Materials in St. Louis, having lugged the heavy stuff across the state, Russell couldn't offer much for the effort. "Say you collect a truckload of clear bottles and bring them over," Russell says. "We pay you $30 a ton, but it cost $25 or $26 per ton to cover the freight cost. So you end up with maybe $4. You can't send 5 tons across the state and expect to make money on it."
"We never broke even on glass," Coffman confirms. "It dragged down the whole recycling effort. It never had any value. It came down to an economic choice between glass and the whole system."
In 2003, Deffenbaugh dropped glass from its curbside program in its handful of Johnson County cities. In 2004, when Kansas City started its residential program, glass wasn't accepted in the new blue bins. Beer bottles and other glass containers were still accepted at some of the three dozen regional drop-off facilities, mostly serviced by Deffenbaugh. But those were capturing very little glass waste. In 2008, Deffenbaugh shipped 3,998 tons of glass for recycling. That same year, more than 75,000 tons went into area landfills.
Because of that meager participation rate, even big names in the recycling industry, including Strategic Materials, wouldn't touch the Kansas City market. "There didn't seem to be enough volume or even enough interest in recycling glass to make it worthwhile," Russell says. "Even if somebody gave us property, we'd have to spend several million dollars. For a few hundred tons a month? It's not worth it."
Meanwhile, Deffenbaugh continued to shed its glass-collection services, even at sites that were the only places for residents to deposit their bottles. Earlier this year, for example, the company stopped taking glass at the drop-off site in Weston. "It doesn't seem like it's been very consistent — like, they've yanked it out of every single drop-off, but they've been slowly wanting to get out of the glass market," says Nadja Karpilow, an environmental planner for the Mid-America Regional Council Solid Waste Management District.
As of October, only 14 locations, scattered across eight counties, were accepting glass containers.
That inconvenience is very much on Mike Utz's mind. He remembers a friend telling him that she couldn't drink Boulevard anymore because dealing with the glass was such a headache. A joke like that makes Utz laugh uneasily.
"I thought, We have to fix this."
On the dreary Friday afternoon that Tom Buck waits for a slow trickle of cars at the 3 Trails recycling center, Utz is so absorbed that he doesn't hear the buzzer echo through the cavernous warehouse on Crystal Avenue.
Poster-sized schematics cover the length of a table in a sterile office furnished with little more than a space heater, a desk and a few chairs. Over the past several weeks, parts have arrived from Belgium for Utz, plant manager Fred Fish and a crew of contractors to assemble into the $4 million facility.
The air smells like new tires and scorched metal. Chutes and belts and big rubber wheels sprout up from the concrete floor like a multistory industrial playground. Utz hopes that, within the month, the gigantic contraption will be sorting, cleaning and grinding 20,000 beer bottles — or 5 tons of glass — per hour.
But this isn't the plant that McDonald originally proposed.
In 2005, waste glass still had the Boulevard team stumped. And they had another problem: Bottlemakers around the country were closing their doors or being swallowed up by bigger corporations. Cattaneo says the number of bottle factories plummeted from 128 in the early 1980s to 50 today. "We had no negotiating power," Utz says of Boulevard's bottles.
That's when McDonald started wondering whether Boulevard could manufacture its own bottles — a move that would make the company its own recycled-glass customer.
A model for this dates back to 1958. Gallo Winery opened a glass plant in California that year to manufacture its own bottles. Utz and McDonald flew to the West Coast in 2006 to meet with the vice president of the company's glass factory. But McDonald learned that a glass plant would be a staggering investment. "We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars," he says.
So McDonald threw up his hands. "I said, 'You know, I've got a brewery to run. If we're not going to build a plant to make our own bottles, I'm not interested.'"
It was already a busy year. In September 2006, McDonald cut the red ribbon on Boulevard's $25 million brewery expansion. Sticking to his mantra of local stewardship, McDonald kept his business near downtown Kansas City instead of fleeing to the suburbs for a patch of cheaper green space. The stylish building, shoehorned next to the original brick warehouse, had environmental cachet, too.
"The green roof — that was John's baby," Utz says.
The vegetation on the roof will help capture and cleanse rainwater in addition to insulating the facility. The oversized windows add an abundance of sunlight to the high-tech lighting system. "We also spent extra money on an energy-recovery program so we don't let energy escape up the stack," Utz says. Investing in the most up-to-date technology, Boulevard made the energy-guzzling process a model of efficiency.
Other industries were following suit, and the Kansas City plant of another business, Owens Corning, was reaping the benefits of a more energy-efficient economy. The green building industry had begun driving up demand for the company's insulation. To earn the highest environmental certifications, though, contractors must use products made with recycled content. In November 2008, Owens Corning announced that it was bumping up the recycled material in its insulation to a minimum of 40 percent. But the local facility was buying its cullet from a supplier in Cleveland, 800 miles away.
By the end of 2008, Owens Corning had signed a contract with Ripple Glass to buy 85 percent of any recycled glass cullet it produced.
But McDonald was still wary. The beer business wasn't booming the way it had been when he and Utz first started talking about a bottle factory.
"We spent a bunch of money to build the new plant, and we're not as profitable as we were four years ago," McDonald says. The downturn in the economy, he explains, has boosted bottle sales, but with fewer people going out to bars and restaurants, keg sales are down. "So while Boulevard will be up 4 or 5 percent this year, we've always grown 15 or 20 percent," McDonald says. "The last few years have been tougher."
And Ripple Glass isn't a moneymaker.
"We make sure to explain," Utz says with a chuckle. "This is not glamorous. It's not about getting rich. It's about filling a void in Kansas City, being a good corporate citizen where we were part of the problem."
Utz and McDonald admit that it could be a break-even endeavor. Jeff Krum, Boulevard's chief financial officer, labels the business a "grand experiment." Still, they have won over some high-profile investors, including DST Systems and UMB Bank. Utz, McDonald and Krum have Ripple business cards, boasting their titles of "principal," but the beermaker is shouldering only a portion of the financial risk.
"But it is a gamble," McDonald says. "We know how to build a plant. We've researched that. We have a customer to buy it — that's a given. What we don't know is, will people actually recycle their glass when they have to make an effort to do it?"
That's the $4 million question.
Because if Ripple can't produce a huge swell in recycling rates, the business will go as flat as a lukewarm beer.
At precisely 10 a.m. on the morning of November 2, Andy Barton stands in the middle of Main Street, blocking traffic for a rumbling Mack truck with bright-purple cargo strapped to its back.
"Stacia, where do you want it?" Barton, the vice president of sales for Deffenbaugh Industries, calls out over the growl of the truck's motor.
Stacia Stelk, CEO of Ripple Glass, is already palming her digital camera for the placement of the very first glass-collection bin. She surveys the lot — owned by one of Ripple's main investors, DST Systems — at one corner of 51st Street and Main and directs the Deffenbaugh driver.
She isn't the only one snapping photos as the purple container starts to slide off the truck. Erin Gould and her 3-year-old son, Adam, are crouched next to a plastic tub full of beer bottles collected at their Halloween party just a few days before. They watch as the Ripple bin lands with a hollow, metallic thud. "Touchdown!" Gould says, before she hoists Adam up to the open flap of the bin, allowing the toddler to toss in an empty bottle.
"They're going to move the one on Roe right now," Barton tells Stelk, who's still smiling at the loud smash as the first bottles hit the bottom of the bin.
Before the end of this bright Monday, Stelk will watch three other containers thump onto the pavement. By the end of the week, the pace will quicken to six a day. By Thanksgiving, there will be 60 collection bins spread out across the metro. Stelk is hoping that Gould will be the first of thousands to toss in their empties.
Kansas Citians have bought into the curbside program. According to a 2007 survey conducted by SCS Engineers, 68 percent of Kansas City respondents said they were using the curbside program on a weekly basis. But not nearly as many people participated when they had to load up their recyclables and drive to a drop-off facility.
The survey from SCS also reported that 88 percent of Kansas City respondents were aware of the recycling facilities, but fewer than a third had used one — even once — over the past year. And recently, glass collection declined further. In September, Kansas City centers took in 98 tons of glass — 10 percent less than the same month last year. July and August were down from 2008 as well.
Stelk thinks Ripple will change that equation with the convenience of the Dumpsters. In fact, the company's business plan depends on it. "The amount today is nowhere near enough to supply us to the level of sustainability," Utz says. "We have to increase glass rates around the city."
In order for the business to break even, Ripple needs to increase the glass-recycling rate to 20 percent. That's four times the current rate, but Ripple's crew is hopeful. "We've been pretty conservative in our projections," Stelk says. "We hope that in year two, we'll have triple the amount we have now."
Ripple has some marketing money to boost its image. In 2008, the Mid-America Regional Council kicked in an outreach grant of $300,000. At least $200,000 of that went to purchase the purple collection bins. The remainder will go to public education: signs in grocery stores, little reminders in liquor retailers. Stelk is banking on the popularity of Boulevard, too.
On the desk of his warehouse office on Crystal Avenue, Utz flips over a typical Boulevard-branded coaster. The other side is printed with the flying-bottle logo for Ripple Glass. The coasters will be hitting bars soon. In coming months, when customers open a six-pack of Boulevard, they'll also get a flier about Ripple Glass.
"We've got better local-market penetration that almost any small brewery in the country," McDonald says. "Kansas City does support local endeavors. We've been incredibly well-supported."
And he thinks the cultural zeitgeist is tipping in his favor.
"In my mind, the world is becoming a more global thing, but consumers want more local," he says. "I think my parents' and grandparents' generations saw nothing but better, faster, more stuff. But that's not the way the world is going to be moving forward."
That's not the only reason he's optimistic about changing Kansas City's mind about recycling. Tom Coffman, Deffenbaugh's spokesman, says he's been taking calls for years from people who are outraged that they can't recycle their glass at the curb. The few men and women unloading empty bottles into the giant, green Dumpsters at 3 Trails agree that they'd like to see more recycling sites. One, who has driven from Warrensburg, complains, "It sucks that there's not a glass-recycling place close to home." Tom Buck rushes over, brandishing a Ripple Glass brochure.
Earlier this year, Boulevard introduced its pilsner. It's not exactly the sophisticated brew that McDonald prefers, but it's what 95 percent of Americans drink, he says.
"And sometimes, you got to give people what they want."