Posted on August 31, 2022
Before sunrise on April 30, a group of 35 volunteers from New Orleans packed up a truck with 12,000 pounds of recycled glass and made their way some 40 miles south of the city to the low-lying lands of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe.
Over the course of the day, those sacks of pulverized glass were gradually deposited to construct waterways, gravel drains and flower beds across the tribe’s land, which sits alongside the Gulf of Mexico on the southern edge of Louisiana.
Sunshine Van Bael, an associate professor at Tulane University’s School of Science & Engineering, was there that day and is part of a team of scientists studying the impact of the glass sand. “We’re working with the tribe to help protect their coast,” Van Bael says. “Their land is extremely exposed to the elements and it’s only getting worse.”
Last August, Pointe-au-Chien felt the full force of Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm that was one of the strongest to hit Louisiana since the 1850s. Tornadoes, intense rainfall and winds of up to 150 miles per hour rendered 68 of the tribe’s 80 homes unlivable.
Louisiana’s rapid shoreline erosion means already weakened defenses are dwindling further. “Coastal erosion is a threat of the highest order,” says Bren Haase, executive director of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “Places once on the map are no longer there. We’re losing land almost faster than anywhere else on Earth.”
Several factors have sped up the catastrophic disappearance of Louisiana’s coast, including oil and gas drilling, tropical storms, and significantly, sea level rise brought on by climate change. Under the state’s Coastal Master Plan, a wide-ranging response to the burgeoning climate threat, more than $20 billion has already been allocated for projects such as building 60 miles of barrier islands and berms, establishing bioengineered oyster reefs, elevating residential homes and installing floodgates.
Yet one crucial resource required to fight the tide is in short supply: sediment. The Mississippi River used to deposit millions of tons of sediment along the Louisiana coast, replenishing and buffering the shoreline, but the construction of levees means the river sends it mostly into the Gulf of Mexico now.
Enter Glass Half Full, a nonprofit based in New Orleans that recycles glass bottles into sand. It’s collaborating with Van Bael and her colleagues on the nine-month study of the glass sand in a groundbreaking effort to stave off the region’s devastating shoreline erosion — and potentially that faced by coastal communities worldwide.
Founders Max Steitz and Franziska Trautmann came up with the concept over a bottle of red wine while still in college at Tulane. Since the City of New Orleans doesn’t recycle glass, they pondered, it would take a million years for the bottle to naturally decompose. “That’s longer than the entirety of human history,” says Steitz.
The pair started the project in a frat backyard in February 2020, after crowdfunding a hand-powered machine to turn glass into sand one bottle at a time. Since then, Glass Half Full has taken over a 40,000-square-foot warehouse. There are 10 staff employees and the project has drawn more than 1,000 volunteers.
Glass Half Full recycles around 20 tons of glass per week using electric machinery, in turn creating 150,000 to 175,000 pounds of sand per month. It encourages locals to drop off glass bottles and jars at hubs for free (about 1,300 currently do so), and offers a pickup service to about 20 businesses — which must sort the bottles by color — for a fee.
Dave Clements, owner of the New Orleans bar Snake and Jake’s since 1992, has been one of those customers since the beginning. His bartenders separate the glass every day and Glass Half Full picks up the bottles, usually filling six or more 55-gallon garbage cans, every two weeks, for roughly $200 a month.
“I’ve been trying to do as much recycling as possible for my business — not only glass, but plastic, cardboard, aluminum cans, I separate them all,” he says. “I think everybody has to be more conservative with the amount of trash they’re creating.”
But Clements says the added cost and workload are likely to be a turnoff for many bar owners. “I’m still convincing my bartenders,” he adds. “When it’s not that busy, it’s easier. Eventually, begrudgingly, they are getting used to it.”
Glass Half Full is now trying to raise $3 million for a statewide rollout. Currently, it can process around one ton of glass an hour, but with a new machine it would be capable of processing 20 per hour. “Entire municipalities, states and multinational companies do what we are trying to do,” says Steitz.
Although New Orleans doesn’t accept glass for recycling, it’s far from alone in having a glass waste problem: The nationwide glass recycling rate in the US was just 31.3% as of 2018, compared with around 80% in the European Union. A spokesperson for New Orleans City Hall said the city is looking to use reclaimed glass to restore Lincoln Beach on Lake Pontchartrain and that it will begin curbside glass recycling pickups this fall. “We are excited to see local entrepreneurs like Glass Half Full grow and look forward to partnering with them on our shared goals of coastal restoration and increased sustainability,” they added.
Beyond coastal defense, Glass Half Full has a sea of ideas: It has launched Glassroots, a nonprofit working with schools to educate kids about recycling (cannily using TikTok to gain 260,000 followers), and it’s partnered with Terrazzo Masters to make colorful tiles from recycled glass (some of which are in New Orleans’s airport). For a project known as NOLA Alchemy, a glassblower is creating artworks and jewelry, as well as glass beads for next year’s Mardi Gras — an alternative to the 25 million pounds of plastic beads disposed of each year. “What better than having the beers you drank last year thrown on you while you’re on a float this year?” says Steitz.
The ongoing Tulane University study, funded by a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is aiming to identify new markets for recycled glass products, determine where recycled glass sand should be deployed to prevent coastal land loss and ensure that the glass sand is safe to use. The team of 20 is looking at the impact of the material — which ranges in size from fine grains to 4-millimeter pebbles — on everything from plants in greenhouses to marine life, erosion rates and biochemistry.
After the Pointe-au-Chien work, 20,000 pounds of glass sand was in May deposited at Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge north of New Orleans. To date, the material has only been tested on land, but the research team expects the Environmental Protection Agency to grant permits for use in water by October. Scant prior research has been carried out: A small-scale 2008 study in Florida found recycled glass is “a biologically viable, sea turtle-friendly nesting substrate,” yet it was not tested in the water.
For that reason, much more analysis is required, says Mark Kulp, chair of the University of New Orleans’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Being able to use recycled glass is really interesting: It would provide an additional quasi-sediment source,” he says. “But would nesting turtles recognize the difference, for example, and would it impact their ability to nest?”
One concern cited by Haase, of the state coastal protection agency, is the logistics of how to transport the glass sand. Restoring a barrier island could require 1 to 10 million cubic yards of the material, he says. “Most of the sediment [for typical projects] doesn’t come through dump trucks. It’s slurry pipelines. Getting it to these remote locations could be a huge challenge.”
But back in Glass Half Full’s New Orleans warehouse, the impressive mountains of green, brown and clear bottles ready to be turned into fine grains and deposited on the threatened coastline of Louisiana are reason for optimism, even if the tide is against them. “This is our planet,” Steitz says. “We need to do something.”