How Craft Beer Brewers Brought Bottle Recycling to Montana

Glass is a pain in Montana’s, uh, recycling program. But the craft brew industry is on the case.
Bayern Brewing’s bottle-washing machine. Photo courtesy of Bayern Brewing.

Bayern Brewing’s bottle-washing machine in action. Photo courtesy of Bayern Brewing.

Cities and states around the nation are struggling to figure out ways to recycle glass without losing money. Glass prices are down, and the cost of hauling is often more than the value of the glass itself. 

“There is no state out there that doesn’t have a glass problem,” says Dusti Johnson, a specialist in recycling and market development for Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality. But in Big Sky Country, dealing with discarded bottles is enough of a headache that the state just doesn’t do it. And that bothers a lot of residents.   

Not enough glass is consumed to justify the fuel needed to haul it.

Montana is one of the largest states in terms of landmass, but one of the smallest in terms of population—the 2014 census estimate put the population at just over one million residents, or seven people per square mile. This means not enough glass is consumed to justify the fuel needed to haul it, especially considering that the nearest glass-processing plants are hundreds of miles away. The state can’t just lump it in with other recyclables either, since glass doesn’t play well with others; if a bottle breaks in a bin full of otherwise uncontaminated recyclables, the shards can ruin the batch—or worse, the machinery it’s processed in. 

Johnson says that “thousands” of people call her office to complain about the state’s lack of glass recycling, but the money to pay for it hasn’t become available. So far, conversations at the state legislature about raising taxes to pay for glass recycling have always stalled out.  

But state-run programs aren’t the only way to keep bottles out of the landfill. Bayern Brewing, in Missoula, has purchased an industrial bottle-washing machine and many of the surrounding breweries have switched to using glass bottles compatible with the washing system. In the past three years, this cooperation between brewers has saved almost 2.5 million bottles from the landfills. 

Raisins in the chocolate chip cookies 

Weight isn’t the only obstacle to recycling glass; it also requires a lot of purity. “Glass melts at different temperatures by color,” says Johnson, and if someone throws plate glass—like from old windows—into the mix, the whole batch will go bad. “It’s like you’re making chocolate chip cookies and someone threw raisins into the damn things.”

While some might argue the occasional raisin is OK in a cookie, it’s not OK when it comes to recycling. And the cookie example is actually pretty applicable to Johnson’s entire career. She’s spent way too much of her life picking unrecyclable things out of the mix. “I’ve picked yards and yards of glass out of piles. I’ve had sour milk run down my arms way too many times.” 

Photo courtesy of Bayern Brewery.

Meanwhile, people have never been more into recycling. According to a recent EPA report, Americans recycled 65 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2013. Unfortunately, we’re not always very good at sorting it. 

“People want to do it, but the task on us is, ‘how do we make it easy and how do we educate people to do it correctly?’” says Brenda Pulley, the senior vice president for recycling at Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit that focuses on building sustainable communities. “There’s so much contamination happening right now in the stream.” 

In fact, because so many stray raisins are ending up in the cookie dough, Pulley says that her organization is moving from a motto of “recycle everything possible” to “if in doubt, throw it out.” In order to really get Americans sorting properly, she says we likely need to either provide massive education programs (something the group is working on) or provide economic incentives. 

From Germany to America, with sustainability

Bayern’s program shows what a grassroots approach to providing an economic incentive might look like. For brewers, washing and reusing bottles eliminates the raw material cost of buying new ones. 

It also takes out the queasy feeling that comes with knowing your product is contributing majorly to landfills. “We are a German brewing company with a German founder, and in Germany it’s very common for a resource to be returned and filled again,” says Thorsten Geuer, brewmaster for Bayern Brewing. For its 25th anniversary in 2013, Bayern plunked down more than $300,000 to import a Seitz industrial bottle washer from Germany. It was the smallest washer that the company had ever constructed, but it’s all that Bayern could fit in its already-packed brewery.    

“It does 5,000 bottles at a time,” Geuer boasts, and since it doesn’t have to melt and reshape the glass, it has a significantly lighter carbon footprint than traditional recycling methods. But what really makes Bayern’s program work is the cooperation it gets from other Montana breweries.

Montana has one of the most robust craft brew scenes in the country. According to the Brewer’s Association, the state has the fourth-highest number of breweries per capita in the nation. In some places this might breed fierce rivalries. But Doug Bailey, the sales manager for Red Lodge Ales, says that’s hardly the case in Montana; the local pioneer spirit leads to more cooperation than competition. 

In the past three years, this cooperation between brewers has saved almost 2.5 million bottles from the landfills. 

Right now, six of the state’s largest brewers collect bottles for washing at Bayern. Residents can drop bottles off at their local tasting room and when one of the breweries has a full load, a recycling company comes and picks them up. These six brewers have all committed to using a bottle compatible with Bayern’s machine, which means the bottles must hold 12 ounces and cannot have any embossing on them.

“We started participating about three years ago,” says Bailey, adding that it was an easy decision because Red Lodge Ales already used compatible bottles. Essentially all it had to do was commit a bit of warehouse space to holding the used ones. Bailey estimates that Red Lodge Ales has collected 125,000 bottles since teaming up with Bayern. The program got another big boost recently when Yellowstone National Park announced it would be sending all of its glass beer bottles to Bayern for washing and refilling too.

“They really deserve an award for this program,” says Johnson. “They’re saying ‘hey, bring your waste back’ and then they’re using it again, which is even better than recycling.”