Glass Act: Local Students Create Their Own Recycling Project

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The Plant the Peace glass recycling project was created by (L to R) Franziska Trautmann, Max Steitz and Max Landy.

NEW ORLEANS – Walk into the backyard of the Zeta Psi fraternity house near Maple and Broadway and you’ll see empty beer and wine bottles scattered all over the bright green artificial turf.

But this contraband isn’t here for the reasons you’d expect. In fact, it was collected by volunteers from a half-dozen pickup sites around the city and then delivered to Zeta Psi’s back porch to be fed into a machine that pulverizes it and creates sand that will be sifted and bagged so it can be used for a variety of purposes.

Yeah, the machine looks a little bit like a keg … but it operates very differently and serves a more noble goal.

“Since we got here four years ago, we knew the city didn’t have glass recycling and it didn’t seem like the problem was going away,” said Tulane student Max Steitz, who started this project with fellow students Max Landy and Franziska Trautmann. “And we were contributing to it. The bottle from every beer we ever had is a couple of miles away in a landfill for the rest of our lives and our kids’ lives.”

Landy, Steitz and Trautmann – who are co-founders of a nonprofit organization called “Plant the Peace” – decided they wanted to tackle two local problems at once by starting a grass-roots recycling program that will create sand that can be used in coastal restoration efforts. So, about five weeks ago, while most New Orleanians were busy washing down king cake with beer, the trio got to work. Here’s what they’ve done so far:

  • Raised roughly $24,000 from small donors
  • Set up five collection locations around town
  • Upcycled huge plastic barrels to use for storage 
  • Bought a trailer to transport everything
  • Bought a machine (made in New Zealand!) that turns glass into sand
  • Created a website to raise awareness, recruit volunteers and gather donations
  • Launched a successful media campaign
  • Met with City Councilmember Kristen Gisleson Palmer to discuss future plans

Landy, Trautmann and Steitz believe that the project just makes sense, despite the many economic factors that have prevented a large-scale glass recycling operation from taking hold in the city.

“We discovered that glass is super recyclable and super necessary because it never breaks down or decomposes,” said Steitz. “There’s like six types of plastic and four have to be thrown away but with glass it’s pretty much any piece that can be recycled.”

In New Orleans, where the landfills were pushed to the max by Hurricane Katrina, a citywide program has proven hard to sustain despite the desires of many residents. One oft-cited reason has been that the demand for the recycled glass wasn’t high enough to warrant the expense of collecting it. The Plant the Peace crew, however, thinks there will be a market for their product.

“We can sell it to companies that manufacture fiberglass, build foundations for homes or do coastal restoration,” said Steitz. “You think it’s everywhere but counterintuitively we are actually in a sand shortage because of all the concrete being used around the world. The alternative [to creating sand this way] is going into a river, a lake or ocean and dredging it, sucking up tons of sand – and that ends up causing further coastal erosion.”

Trautmann credits the warm response from the city for their quick start.

“I think that goes out to the New Orleans community for being so excited about this project and pushing it forward and making us work every day on it to make it a reality,” she said. “I think it’s all the people we see putting glass in the barrels who tell us, ‘Keep it up!’ and share the fundraising links.”

“That’s really been the motivation,” said Landy. “We didn’t get here on our own by any means. The support from the community is what’s gotten us here.”

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