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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."