Squatters Brewery Bottles

Spin the Bottle: How a local brewery found a way to recycle its glass

Before going green became popular, Salt Lake Brewing Company co-founders Jeff Polychronis and Peter Cole were committed to environmental responsibility. They formed their brewing company to embrace the “triple bottom line” ideal—putting not just profit, but people and planet first.

But a decade or so ago, there wasn’t much of an infrastructure for businesses that wanted to embrace sustainability. Salt Lake Brewing Company’s founders and employees were passionate about the idea of having a robust glass recycling program, but didn’t have a way to make that happen—the city did not yet have a program, and neither did any other company they could find. So they became invested in finding their own solution.

“We were generating tons of glass—everything we made was in glass bottles, not cans. And the city didn’t have a program,” says James Soares, director of operations for Salt Lake Brewing Company.  “But we didn’t give up on finding a way to recycle our glass.”

Keeping everyone on board

If your company is looking for out-of-the-box solutions to novel problems, the first thing to know is that everyone—from the c-suite to the intern—needs to be on board with your mission, says Soares. Why? Because many of those out-of-the-box solutions don’t work the way you want them to, and you don’t want people to bail at the first sign of turbulence.

For instance, the first thing Salt Lake Brewing Company tried was a “closing the loop” approach, says Soares. He’d heard of glass blowers at Sundance that utilized old beer bottles, blowing glass by hand to create cups. A light bulb went on in Soares’ head—they could have their beer bottles blown into glasses and utilize them in the restaurant! A perfect closed-loop approach!

“[Glass is] infinitely recyclable! It’s one of those things that, if we manage the glass we already have out there in the world, we’d probably never have to mine any virgin product to make more glass,” says Soares.

But the cups they had made started having problems almost immediately. The glass wasn’t tempered, so when heated or cooled too quickly, the cups would break. They were heavy, which made the wait staff complain. They were handmade, so each was a different height and shape and thus bartenders couldn’t serve beer in them. The customers liked it—but they were the only ones.

“So we bagged it, but we didn’t give up on the idea of glass recycling,” says Soares—and a big reason was because, even though the wait staff hadn’t liked the hand-blown glasses, they were still invested in the idea of recycling. “We were already sorting—we had servers and bartenders sort the glass in different containers. We’d already gotten people in the habit of recycling glass. And the employees were really into it! They were disappointed when we thought we might have to stop.”

Salt Lake Brewing Company started an internal survey about recycling and formed an employee committee to get together once a month and talk about what they could do. It kept everyone invested and engaged in finding a program and solution that would fit.

“We all said: ‘We’re doing this.’ It helped us get over those little hurdles,” says Soares.

Finding alternatives

Employee investment was especially important in the next solution Salt Lake Brewing Company tried, which was taking all the glass to remote drop-off locations in the city. It was time-intensive, as employees would have to sort the glass, put it in bins and drive it out to the location.

“We were recycling by hand,” says Soares—but engagement was still high. The company soon reached out to SLCgreen, Salt Lake Sustainability Department, and found that they were interested in helping make the process easier.

“The star of the story is the city: they’ve been really progressive and supportive to businesses that want to be more environmentally sustainable,” says Soares. “It’s not something we did by ourselves.”

Eventually, just as the manual recycling was becoming too much to manage—by this point, Salt Lake Brewing Company was rapidly expanding—Soares was connected with a small glass recycling startup that was meeting with Downtown Alliance and SLCgreen: Momentum Recycling. Momentum was starting a pilot program for downtown businesses looking to recycle glass and needed at least 10 companies for the initial run. Salt Lake Brewing Company was not only immediately on board, it worked to recruit other businesses to join as well.

“The city was really proactive and really involved in figuring out how to get a new company like Momentum recycling glass in downtown business. That fast-forwards 50 years in six months in eliminating a stream from the landfill and creating other businesses,” says Soares. “It’s huge energy savings. It’s become this really awesome thing! Although we’re recycling a small percentage of glass in the state—at least we’re actively recycling it.”

Salt Lake Brewing Company continues to campaign other businesses to get involved in recycling, says Soares, and looks to find other ways it can be sustainable. With every glass bottle taken out of the trash—and now, fryer oil donated to eventually become biodiesel—less and less goes into landfills. And that, says Soares, keeps the company connected to its bottom line: it means more energy savings, happier employees that believe in the company’s mission, and a healthier environment overall.