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"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.