According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Louisiana has the highest rate of wetland loss in the country, accounting for 80 percent of the nation’s coastal wetland loss. In total, Louisiana has lost about 1,900 square miles of its coast since 1932, a USGS report says.
Within the past 100 years, Louisiana’s barrier islands have decreased in area by more than 40 percent, and some islands have lost more than 75 percent of their land area. Coastal erosion is so bad that a state of emergency was called in 2017 because it weakens natural protections from hurricanes and flooding.
Glass Half Full, a glass recycling company based in New Orleans, hopes to reverse this issue by covering New Orleans’ coastlines with crushed recycled glass.
“Instead of selling our end product, we use it for beneficial purposes, like coastal restoration,” Glass Half Full co-founder Franziska Trautmann says. “We’ve partnered with Tulane University to research the benefits of using glass sand and how it can improve shorelines and vegetation, which is something that’s not really been explored before.”
As seniors at Tulane, Trautmann and Max Steitz were frustrated with the lack of glass recycling in New Orleans. With the help of their friend Max Landy, the group formed the company over a bottle of wine they worried would end up in a landfill if something wasn’t done.
Specifically, they wanted a system that was transparent and accessible and that recycled glass into something functional. Instead of trying to take on the ultimately unrealistic task of reforming the current system, the group decided to look at the glass half full by implementing a grassroots glass recycling program, Trautmann says.
“We wanted to be a part of the solution instead of continuing to be a part of the problem,” she says.
According to a recent report from the United Nations, sand is the second most used raw material in the world. Sand plays a strategic role in delivering ecosystem services and vital infrastructure for economic development, providing livelihoods within communities, and maintaining biodiversity. This has led to a growing decline in the availability of the material, something Glass Half Full is hoping to change.
The company launched in 2020 through crowd-funding and began with a glass pulverizer in a friend’s backyard and 30 plastic barrels to collect the glass. In its first year, Glass Half Full collected more than 600,000 pounds of glass.
Now, the company operates out of a 40,000-square-foot facility and processes more than 1 million pounds of glass annually. It has 10 employees that collect glass and operate the facility’s machinery.
Glass Half Full collects glass through two main channels: drop-off sites located throughout New Orleans and at the facility. The company also offers a paid pickup program where it comes out and collects the glass from businesses, including grocery stores or restaurants. Trautmann says the company collects 90,000 pounds of glass monthly through its drop-off sites and 60,000 pounds through its pick-up services.
Once the glass is collected, it is fed into a system provided by Andela Products, a glass recycling equipment manufacturer based in Richfield Springs, New York. The machine crushes the glass into sand and gravel, then sifts through the material to separate it by size. The machine can process about 3,000 pounds of glass per hour.
Since its founding, Glass Half Full has recycled more than 3 million pounds of glass in the New Orleans area.
A clear vision
Trautmann says what sets Glass Half Full apart from others is its front-end operations. Glass Half Full runs several initiatives aimed at increasing consumer education and access to glass recycling. Additionally, instead of selling its end product, the company donates it to local projects that help improve the coastline as well as sends it to artists, landscapers, and other businesses that may need it.
Glass Half Full runs its coastal projects using a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, which began in September. The company also recently received a $20,000 grant from Amazon for its efforts in coastal rehabilitation.
Through its partnership with Tulane, the money goes to research and implementation of the glass through ReCoast, a joint effort between Glass Half Full and Tulane. ReCoast has been studying the effect of recycled glass on native plants and creatures. Specifically, the team is studying how the cullet impacts factors such as temperature, moisture, and gas exchange.
“Most of the sand we have access to is very fine sand, and when working in coastal environments, especially ones that interface with water, the finer material gets washed away much quicker,” Trautmann says. “It can also compact in a way that doesn’t allow for plants to take root very well or easily.”
After nine months, ReCoast’s team found that marsh grasses and willow trees grew just as well in the dredged sand treatment as they did in the mixed treatment of sediment and glass. While the results are promising, more research needs to be done. This includes how the crushed glass affects animals in an ecosystem where it’s deployed.
Glass Half Full also has a network of more than 1,200 volunteers that help with community outreach and coastal restoration projects throughout the state. The network makes up the company’s nonprofit arm the business, called GlassRoots, which aims to expand access to recycling through educational opportunities. It also partners directly with communities in Louisiana on glass collection and erosion projects.
Glass Half Full and Glassroots have helped with several projects, including working with the Pointe au Chien Indian tribe, which is still recovering from Hurricane Ida. In May, Glass Half Full installed a glass gravel drain and rain garden with native plants in glass sand for the tribe. Overall, more than 10,000 pounds of recycled glass sand and gravel were used for this project.
The company also assisted Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge with coastal restoration. Volunteers used 20,000 pounds of recycled glass sand in burlap sacks, which are biodegradable, and planted 5,000 native bulrush plants. The constructed wall will collect sediment over time and provide a protective barrier for the plants while they grow. By the time the burlap biodegrades, the new marsh grasses will have taken root and begun to fill in the area blown out by the storm.
Part of the growing success of Glass Half Full is its effective social media campaigns. Its Instagram, which has just under 30,000 followers, uses bright, easy-to-understand infographics and photos of its work in the field to grow its message and attract volunteers.
“Social media plays a huge role in our growth and success,” Trautmann says. “I believe it is almost as important to be able to communicate your work and its importance as it is to do the work.”
The company’s social media has allowed it to grow quickly in the last two and a half years. Through platforms like Instagram and TikTok, Glass Half Full has received grants, donations, and machinery. It also helps the company create long-term partnerships with local businesses and organizations.
While the company’s coastal efforts are still getting off the ground, Trautmann says it has a few larger projects in the works. This includes providing materials to build coastal infrastructure in hard-to-access places that will strengthen the state’s overall coastal resilience.
Once the National Science Foundation Grant ends, Trautman says Glass Half Full will pursue connections with local government to continue its work.