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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.