The idea started with a bottle of wine.
Franziska Trautmann and Max Steitz were drinking it in 2020 when they were still students at Tulane University. There is little glass recycling in New Orleans – or in Louisiana – so they knew there was a good chance the bottle would end up in the dump. They decided right then and there they wanted to do something about it.
The two met during their freshman year of college through a mutual friend. Trautmann, who grew up in rural Louisiana and majored in chemical engineering, watched her grandmother recycle avidly. Steitz grew up in New York City and has led several community initiatives before he graduated school, including raising more than $65,000 for New Orleans small-businesses, musicians and nonprofits in 2020 and founding Plant the Peace, a nonprofit that has contributed to planting about 100,000 trees.
After some more research, they learned the best way to recycle glass was by pulverizing it into sand – a process that would occur naturally over hundreds of thousands of years, or in seconds with their help.
Glass is Last. That’s a Problem
Across the United States, recyclables are put into a single bin – a process that was created to make it easier for consumers to recycle. But glass is the last to be sorted, and when it’s mixed with nonrecyclables and gets dirty, it often gets thrown out, the two said. The city of New Orleans does not allow glass as part of its curbside, single-stream recycling, but does offer drop-off recycling, which received about 720,000 pounds (360 tons) of glass last year, according to a city spokesperson.
Trautmann and Steitz got to work, making sand out of separated glass bottles in the backyard of their college house. They used a machine about half the size of a person, which broke down one bottle at a time, Trautmann said. Their yard quickly filled up with glass bottles ready to be pulverized. “We would beg our friends to help us do it,” she said.
It was easy for them to start – the two viewed it as a side project to do when they could. They dived in, without funding or a long term plan, intending to graduate and get a job. But then they received an outpouring of support from the New Orleans community.
“The switch flipped for us when we saw all these people coming to bring us their glass who were so excited to see us doing something, to see someone actually step up and solve this problem that has been plaguing New Orleans and Louisiana for years,” Trautmann said.
“That is when we were like, oh, wow, all these people are counting on us, so we should really do this and give it our all.”
They launched Glass Half Full in 2020, and classified it as a low-profit limited liability company– a hybrid classification of a for-profit business model with a mission emphasis. The classification was a good fit for the high-risk facility and also gave them more funding options, Steitz said.
They quickly outgrew their backyard and moved to a 1,500 square foot space. Now, the two operate on a much larger scale – in a 40,000 square foot facility where they process thousands of bottles into five different sand sizes and employ seven people. They’ve raised more than $220,000 from fundraising, a startup competition and a grant, and now make their revenue from their $25-a-month pickup program, which about a thousand people currently participate in.
People also bring their glass bottles and jars to its drop-off locations. Their efforts have diverted more than 1.8 million pounds of glass from the landfill.
The glass gets a new life as sand – which is made into soil mixtures, used for coastal restoration or to fill up sandbags for disaster relief through a partnership with Tulane University and the National Science Foundation. The glass is also recycled into new products, such as jewelry or terrazzo countertops.
The relief uses are particularly useful in New Orleans, a city susceptible to climate change’s impacts, such as hurricanes and shrinking coastlines.
“It’s just incredible to see how much of an impact a few people can have on our city,” Trautmann said. “Seeing people respond to that and appreciate it makes it all worth it.”
Just get started. Like many entrepreneurs, Trautmann and Steitz’s idea wasn’t a business at first. They were following a passion. The work started small and grew with the community’s support. “I think we are the perfect example for people who didn’t have a grand plan,” Trautmann said. “We didn’t have money – we didn’t even try to get money before starting. We were just like, we’re gonna recycle glass.”
Have the confidence to be the change. There’s opportunity to solve problems you see, Steitz said. “It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by all the challenges, especially in light of climate change,” he said. “I think it’s important to know that sometimes there are solutions within those problems.
Meet the customer where they are. The two listened to their community’s needs and worked toward providing solutions, such as a pickup program.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.