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Methow Recycles plant manager Susan Ernsdorff transfers glass bottles from one of the center’s bins to a 25-yard roll-off bin. The glass then gets trucked to Cascade Concrete where it is used as fill in the reclamation of a gravel pit. Photo by Laurelle Walsh

By Laurelle Walsh

Often, when trying to achieve big things in a small community, the best option is to partner with others who share your goals. Along the same lines, challenging problems sometimes force small businesses to think outside the box.

Two valley businesses, Cascade Concrete in Winthrop and Methow Recycles in Twisp, joined forces last year to find a new solution to the problem of glass recycling in the Methow. Locally discarded glass is staying local – very local – returning to the earth as fill in the reclamation of a nearby gravel pit.

“Glass has been a huge challenge for Methow Recycles since the beginning,” said the recycling center’s director, Betsy Cushman.

While the community has consistently expressed a desire to recycle its glass, the cost and logistical difficulties of hauling glass to the state’s only glass processor, eCullet in south Seattle, would make turning the valley’s glass into new bottles cost-prohibitive, Cushman said.

In 2004, Methow Recycles purchased a crushing machine and began crushing bottles into sand, but the cranky machine was expensive to run and donations to the center barely covered half the cost of making glass sand. And there was still the problem of finding a viable market for glass sand in the valley, said Cushman.

The Methow Valley Sport Trails Association tried using the glass sand in various mixtures on its summer trails for almost 10 years, but the material didn’t bond well with other surfaces, according to Executive Director James DeSalvo. “We wanted to use a locally sourced recycled product, but it didn’t really work for us,” DeSalvo said.

Cascade Concrete tried mixing the crushed glass into its concrete and sand products, but it was pricey aggregate and its sharp edges made it unsuitable for household use, according to owner Chad Patterson.

Glass gets put to new use

But an alliance was formed between the concrete maker and the recycling center and, after negotiating with multiple state agencies, Methow Recycles and Cascade Concrete found a new use for the inorganic material: with permission from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), local glass may now be used as fill material in the reclamation of the Horizon Flats gravel pit.

“DNR says you can’t just leave a hole in the ground,” said Patterson, whose family has been mining gravel and making concrete products at the plant above Winthrop since 1977.

Cascade Concrete’s 15.7-acre gravel pit must eventually be reclaimed for secondary use, according to Patterson. Depending on zoning, a pit like his could be turned into a golf course, an industrial park, rangeland or a residential area. “Basically the goal is to make it look like the surrounding area,” said Patterson.

Reclaiming the 50-foot deep pit involves grading, leveling and filling the hole with a mix of compacted inorganic material: sand, gravel and now crushed glass.

“Glass can be mixed with a large amount of sand and gravel here,” said Patterson. He estimates glass to be around 10 percent, by volume, of the overall fill mix.

Cushman said the recycling center fills on average two 25-yard roll-off bins per month over the course of a year. Each of the giant bins holds around 6.5 tons of glass.

The bins are hauled to Cascade Concrete on one of WasteWise Methow’s roll-off trucks. WasteWise Methow is the valley’s waste management business, co-owned by Patterson and Casey Bouchard.

In an area ready for reclamation, the glass is dumped from the truck straight into the pit, spread in a thin layer on the ground and “track crushed” in place with an excavator until the pieces are smaller than 1-inch. Bottles must be broken so that there are no air pockets that might collapse in the fill over time, Patterson said.

The crushed glass is mixed with sand and gravel in a one-foot-deep layer and then topped with another two feet of sand and gravel. Patterson acknowledges that it’s a tiny percentage of glass by volume, but his company benefits from the fill material, and he likes the fact that local glass gets put to local use.

“It’s not perfect,” said Cushman. “In a perfect world we’d have a bottle plant nearby, but it’s the best of the available options.”

Methow Recycles pays Cascade Concrete to take the community’s glass, which is added to the bottles that WasteWise hauls in from its commercial customers. “It’s a business agreement, but nobody’s making money on it,” said Cushman.

“There’s a price tag for handling glass,” said Cushman. Methow Recycles asks recyclers to pitch in $3 per trashcan of glass dropped off at the center. Likewise, WasteWise charges its commercial customers to haul away their glass.

The reclamation process

While there’s no particular time frame for reclamation of any gravel pit, operations like Patterson’s maintain a reclamation bond on each “open” or disturbed acre, and the cost of the bond “is a lot more than the cost of reclaiming,” Patterson said.

Hear more about trash

Hear more about trash, recycling
Methow Recycles plant manager Susan Ernsdorff, along with Cushman and Bouchard, will be the featured speakers at the Methow Conservancy’s February First Tuesday program — “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Recycling & Trash” — at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Feb. 4) at the Twisp River Pub. The trio will answer questions about what happens to the valley’s “stuff,” including where it gets shipped, how it gets processed, and what it gets made into. The event is free.

For this reason, he said, gravel pit owners “try to close them as soon as possible,” after a pit ceases to be productive.

Patterson estimates there are fewer than five years worth of gravel-making material left at the site, and it will take 15 to 20 years of reclamation work before DNR closes the permit and releases his bond.

In the meantime, reclamation can proceed in areas of the pit where productive mining has ended, Patterson said. Cascade Concrete will continue to make concrete at the plant even after mining at that site ends, by hauling in material from the company’s two other permitted pits nearby, he said.

“As long as we’re digging gravel out of here, we’ll be able to take glass,” said Patterson.

“I can’t tell you how much time Methow Recycles has spent trying to figure out the problem of glass,” Cushman said. “We are very happy with the arrangement.”