In the battle to prevent climate change, the sands of time are running out quickly. Almost every month, scientists and think tanks tell us we’re at the precipice of widespread ecological destruction. Severe flooding, droughts, animal extinctions, pollution, and, since it’s the season, more frequent and destructive hurricanes have combined in recent years to offer us mere mortals a snippet of our collective future.
It doesn’t look great, but it’s also not too late.
Fortunately, people are helping to flip the hourglass on our continued environmental disaster.
Reckon spoke with Fran Trautmann, 24, a chemical engineering graduate from Tulane University and the co-owner of Glass Half Full, a New Orleans startup that recycles glass into sand.
But rather than sprinkling it back on the country’s beaches, Trautmann and her co-founder Max Steitz ensure that most of it goes toward fighting the cascading effects of climate change.
Hi Fran. Your company sounds fantastic. After recycling the glass, what happens to the sand and when did you start this business?
We started Glass Half Full New Orleans in 2020. We turn the glass into sand and gravel that is used for disaster relief, new glass products, construction, and, most importantly, coastal restoration.
How does that process work and where do you get your glass?
We collect glass in two different ways. One is through a free drop-off service where anyone can bring us glass. The second is our paid pickup services. Residents and businesses, like bars, restaurants, and hotels, can pay us to pick up their glass. And then, once the glass reaches our facility, we put it into our pulverizing machine, which essentially does all of the work for us. It freshens it up and separates any labels, caps, corks and contaminants. And then it’ll sift the sand and gravel into different sizes. So we’ll get very uniform size distributions, ranging from a very fine powder, like sand, to more coarser sand and gravel.
Do you aim to create different products or is it dependent on the type of glass you recycle?
It’s just whatever comes out of the machine. But our main goal is to get coarse sand. And that’s the majority of what the machine produces, however, in order to get that, the machine often creates some smaller and some larger pieces, then we just sift it to that we’re left with a more uniform product, as opposed to a mixture of sand and gravel because each different size has a different use.
So the very fine powder is good for sandbags and sandblasting. The coarse sand is what we really want for coastal restoration. And then, the gravel can be used for other applications like aesthetic things, landscaping, and making new glass pieces.
This might sound stupid since glass is made out of sand, but are you reverting the glass to its original form like what we’d find on a beach?
It’s pretty close to the original sand. There are certain elements and other things besides sand used in glassmaking. We did our analyses by comparing our sand with native sands around us, which are dredged from the Mississippi. Native sand has a higher percentage of silica, as does our sand, but ours also includes some things like sodium carbonate, which is used in glass making. Then there are other smaller elements used for color and things like that. It’s all naturally occurring elements.
How did you get started, and what inspired you?
I’ve lived in Louisiana my whole life and have always heard about our dire coastal erosion crisis, where we lose 100 yards of land every 100 minutes. In college, my co-founder Max and I started to become more aware of the glass recycling issues throughout our state - Louisiana basically doesn’t recycle any of glass – and realized that we could solve these multiple problems with one solution, which is turning glass into sand and then using that for coastal restoration.Obviously, it wasn’t that easy. We started in our backyard, just recycling glass into sand. And we didn’t reach the coastal restoration part of it until I was able to partner with some of my old professors at Tulane. We applied for a National Science Foundation grant to support that research.
That’s when that piece of our project really took off.
Are you a charity?
Not exactly. We’re a L3C, like a social enterprise. It’s a hybrid between a nonprofit and a for-profit. We pay full taxes, but in a legal sense, we are mission-driven ahead of any profit.
So, from a backyard to a factory. That’s impressive. Do you have plans to scale up?
Currently, we recycle about 150,000 pounds a month. We’re now in a 40,000-square-foot facility, and we’re constantly growing. Our next step is to invest in machinery that would allow us to recycle essentially all of the glass going to Louisiana landfills. And then from there, ideally, spread to other cities.
I imagine that not every city is primed for this innovative type of recycling. New Orleans is fairly progressive and empties many glass bottles daily. What considerations go into growing and spreading your business?
We look at consumer behavior, median income. Do they have glass recycling already? Are they a coastal city? Those are things we’re looking at more broadly in terms of the research. Right now, we’re looking at areas near Mississippi beaches, Florida beaches, and coastal Texas. We already know that a lot of places in those states need glass recycling as well.
Do you have any success stories that come to mind?
Mainly the two coastal restoration projects we did, especially the first project, which was with the Point-Au-Chien tribe. They were in an area that was directly in the eye of Hurricane Ida. And so they’ve seen a lot of devastation. They’ve also seen a lot of land loss over the years. And so being able to partner with them on our restoration projects is just so incredible, so rewarding. They’re kind and giving people that we’re excited to work with again one day.
The second was with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and CRCL [Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana]. That was on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, which is also just a beautiful place. You go by airboat and it’s a very picturesque Louisiana marsh experience.