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Episode 36 - Saving Louisiana’s coastline with recycled glass

On Good Authority Episode 36 – Photo of Franziska Trautmann

Louisiana is losing land to coastal erosion at the rate of one football field every 100 minutes. Franziska Trautmann, an alumna of the Tulane School of Science and Engineering and co-founder of Glass Half Full, explains how her organization plans to fight coastal erosion by recycling Louisiana’s glass. 

Transcript ▾

Speakers
Becca Hildner, social and digital media coordinator, Tulane Communications & Marketing
Franziska Trautmann, Tulane alumna and co-founder of Glass Half Full

 

Hildner
Welcome to On Good Authority, the podcast by Tulane University, where we bring you leading experts to talk about issues of the day and ideas that shape the world. I'm your host, Becca Hildner. So here's a fact, on average, Louisiana loses a football field of coastline every 100 minutes. And another fact, New Orleans does not recycle glass. So how are these two concepts related? Fran Trautmann, an alumna of Tulane School of Science and Engineering and co-founder of Glass Half Full, is here to explain how she created an organization that addresses both coastal erosion and glass recycling in one fell swoop. Fran, welcome to On Good Authority.

Trautmann
Thank you for having me.

Hildner
So it seems that more people are starting to become aware of the myth of recycling. But for those who don't know, can you give us a rundown on the current state of recycling in the U.S., and more specifically, in New Orleans and Louisiana?

Trautmann
Sure, yeah. So it dates back to when the government introduced what is called single-stream recycling, where we put everything into one bin. And that was particularly detrimental to glass recycling, because in that process of putting everything in one bin, in order to be separated, glass came out last. And so, it's often mixed with plastic, with paper, with straight up trash. And so, it's really difficult to create a high-quality product out of that trash, basically. And so, glass recycling continued to fall by the wayside throughout the U.S. But particularly in Louisiana, where we didn't really have the infrastructure in place to handle that, and still do not have the infrastructure in place to handle that. So in Louisiana, no municipality in the entire state recycles glass. There are, I believe, two that collect it through very small programs. But we do not have a lot of that glass recycling infrastructure here in our state.

Hildner
You and your co-founder, Max, are both Tulane alumni. And from what I hear, this idea was started in the backyard of someone's house while you were students. So I'm curious how your time here at Tulane and in New Orleans impacted or informed your decision to start a recycling organization? Because I assume you didn't, you know, grow up wanting to start a recycling plant.

Trautmann
You would be correct. Yeah. I think a big way that Tulane shaped how we started and how we continue to operate is the service-learning requirements. So having to, you know, go out into the community, partner with an organization or a group of people, and do service, is really an incredible part of the Tulane education and something that shaped both of us. Max was actually a service-learning fellow, so he had to do even more service learning. But yeah, it's something that was really instilled in us since you know, TIDES, where I did my first service-learning project. And so, I think that idea of working with the community that we live in, and giving back to the community in some way, shaped how we formed Glass Half Full and why we did it.

Hildner
I'd love if you could walk us through it. What does a typical day look like for you at Glass Half Full?

Trautmann
Sure, yeah. So our process is pretty simple. We collect glass, either through a drop-off program where anyone can bring us their glass for free, or our paid pickup program, where we will go and pick up glass from a resident’s house or a business, like a bar or a restaurant. And so, we operate pickups four days a week, and then we operate drop-offs three days a week. So depending on what day it is, we'll either be focusing on pickups or drop-offs or both. But once the glass reaches our warehouse, we will crush it through our automatic machines, which is put it into a hopper with a front-end loader. And then it'll get crushed into a mixture of sand and gravel. And then from there, we'll sift it into various sizes. Personally, my day to day is not always on the operation side. I generally oversee operations, but I'm not physically there all the time. A lot of times I do communications like this. I love going to schools and talking to certain groups like Society of Women Engineers or middle schools in the in the New Orleans region. And then I also do a lot of the research side of things. So working with Tulane engineers and professors on the coastal restoration research.

Hildner
So beyond, you know, kind of the operational difficulties with glass being sorted last. How does your model differ from traditional recycling? I think a lot of people are confused about whether recycling is a for-profit business or run by the government. So how does your model kind of differ from what we have for other products like recycling plastic?

Trautmann
Yeah, we like to say we are a community-run glass recycling organization. So the community and individuals play a really big part in how our operations run. So that's anywhere from whether an individual is bringing us their glass, or whether they're purchasing the products once the sand or gravel is ready to use in their garden, or anything else they might use sand and gravel for. We're also constantly trying to get input from the community on things that they want to see. For example, our sandbag program for hurricanes. We often give away sandbags when a storm is approaching for those who need them. And then also do a lot of volunteer programs having to do with disaster relief or recycling. So we're constantly just trying to engage the community instead of just being this like, omnipresent like recycling organization, because a lot of times when people recycle, they don't really know where it goes, or what happens to it. And so, we want to be the exact opposite and be extremely transparent. Sometimes people come in and they're like, “Hey, can I take a look around?” And we're like, “Sure, this is where the magic happens.” Like, it all happens here, you can see it right in front of your eyes. And you can feel what comes with that recycling.

Hildner
Right. Yeah, you know, obviously, the word recycling means that the waste, or quote unquote “waste,” is being made into a new product. And a lot of times with other waste sources, we send them away on a truck, and we never see what they get turned into. So could you talk more about the main products that you're turning this glass into, and some of the problems you're hoping to solve with them?

Trautmann
Yeah. So essentially, we turn the glass into sand and gravel, and the sizes of sand and gravel that we create range from like a very fine powder up to a small gravel size. And so, each size has a different utilization. The smallest size of the sand is really good for sandblasting. It can also be used in concrete, which we're researching how to do. And then as we get bigger into the coarser sand, that's exactly what we want to use for coastal restoration. The coarser stuff is really good because it's harder to erode. So it'll stay put more when confronted with storms or waves. Additionally, the smaller stuff can be suspended in water. So that's not as good for fish and wildlife. So we're finding that that coarse sand is perfect for restoration. It's also really good for plants to grow in, obviously. So it can be used for soil or landscaping. And then the gravel sizes can also be used for landscaping. We're researching using the gravel in rain gardens here locally with a nonprofit, Home by Hand. And then the larger sizes can also be melted and made into new products. So we've kind of got our hands in a lot of different products, just to see where we can have the biggest impact. And then of course, I talked about our sandbag distribution program, which can utilize a mixture of the smaller sand sizes.

Hildner
That's awesome. I think, too, with the sandbags, you guys are not only just turning glass into a new product, but you're helping to address the sand crisis that we have currently. Can you explain what that is, and what we're facing with that with that crisis?

Trautmann
Yeah, so globally, we are in a sand shortage, which a lot of people think I'm crazy when I say that, but it's true. We're using up sand at a much faster rate than it can be created naturally by the earth. And the ways we get sand are also extremely environmentally taxing. So we dredge it, either from the ocean or from waterways. Here locally, we dredge it from the Mississippi, which has its own issues. So yeah, that's something we're sort of combating as well, by showing people that this sand can be used as an alternative to dredge sand and sand that we're running out of. One of the main ways we use sand is through concrete. So like I said, the smallest stuff can be used in concrete. And it's actually showing that it can strengthen the concrete more than like traditional sand can.

Hildner
Tulane researchers received a grant from the National Science Foundation's Convergence Accelerator program, and one of the groups they're working with is Glass Half Full. I believe you're in phase one of that research. So can you walk us through that partnership?

Trautmann
Yeah. We were able to partner with some of my old professors in the chemical engineering department, as well as Tulane professors in coastal and river engineering, ecology, biology, a ton of different experts in their fields, to apply for this National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator. So we were awarded like you said, phase one funding, which is essentially testing the safety and the feasibility. So asking the main question of, “Can we actually do this?” Which we've been proving through materials characterization. So what's actually in the sand, is it safe to put in the environment. We've been testing its efficacy in erosion, so doing some erosion control tests. We've been growing plants in it to make sure all the plants like it, and then we're also testing it with fish and crabs. So all of that is going really well, which means that we can now apply for phase two funding, which will be more of testing it in the environment. So putting it out on coastlines, on bayous, seeing how it does, how it holds up. Again, double-checking that the water quality is good, that the fish are all liking it, that the plants are growing well. But all of our studies and research has shown that it will go well, which is really exciting. So yeah, phase two, if we receive the funding, will be implementing projects of actually using the sand on the coast.

Hildner
And so, are there any other cities that are recycling glass as well?

Trautmann
It's definitely a global issue. There are a lot of large cities that do not recycle glass. There are also a lot of cities that do it well. So in places like California, where there's a bottle bill, or Michigan where there's also a bottle bill, and so you can turn in your glass for money. And then it'll be sent to a proper glass recycling facility where it can be turned into new bottles. But like I said, there's a lot of infrastructure required to recycle glass into new bottles. It requires a lot of large plants, and planning, and generally, government support. So you see a lot of major cities losing glass recycling, because it's just not working. And we see that, yeah, nationally and internationally.

Hildner
How does that differ from plastic recycling? Because I know with plastic recycling, we, in America, we kind of just collect it and then we send it to other countries that recycle it for us. And the profit margins are pretty low. It's it's not a profitable endeavor for for companies to recycle plastic. Is that also a problem with glass, that there's maybe not a market for it and close enough areas? What are the intricacies behind selling the recycled goods?

Trautmann
Yeah, so the infrastructure of having a bottling plant needs to be in place in order for it to be profitable. So that's, and most bottling plants, so plants that will take glass and make it into new bottles, are present inland. So in a lot of coastal cities, there's an issue of not having a bottling plant where you can sell that product to. So that's another reason why we're researching so many different ways that the glass can be used that doesn't have to be sending it to a bottling plant, so that other cities might be able to use this model and turn the glass in the sand and use it in concrete or something else.

Hildner
Did you study anything while you were a student that kind of gave you insight into how all of this works? Like studying the chemical makeup of the glass and the labels and the ink, and how that affects the environment? Or is that just something you learned along the way?

Trautmann
No, we have learned everything along the way. I did study chemical engineering, but I was more into the biological side of chemical engineering. So I studied genetics and CRISPR technology and things like that. However, my my studies and my background are definitely helping me with this research and allowing me to actually understand most of the things the scientists are talking about and researching, which is really exciting. But I didn't have any any like prior knowledge of glass or recycling.

Hildner
So kind of speaking of knowledge and that I don't know if you studied communications or marketing either, but Glass Half Full has been featured on Good Morning America, Now This, BuzzFeed, The Weather Channel, and you guys have gone viral on TikTok and other social media platforms quite often. Did you have experience in running those social channels? And additionally, what do you make of the interest in your organization, and what do you think it means for the future of sustainability?

Trautmann
We did not have any marketing or communication experience. Max was actually the one who in like June of 2020, was like, “We need to make a TikTok.” And I was like, “Isn't that like for kids? Are we young enough?” And he made a TikTok and the first one went viral, which was just incredible, and showed us how valuable social media could be. And we just started utilizing it to the best of our ability and making videos about our story, our journey, what we're up to, what we're planning, and things like that. And people have just loved it, which has been incredible to see. I think that speaks to how frustrated a lot of young people are with the lack of action on climate change and certain sustainability issues. And so, seeing other young people take action in our city, I think has inspired a lot of people to take action in their city as well. Or at least support people taking the action. But yes, it's it's been really incredible to see all the good feedback we've gotten.

Hildner
So what would you say to someone who may be younger, or doesn't have access to, you know, resources to create their own recycling organization? What would be your tips on how to start kind of a community effort around recycling, and how can people get involved in their own towns with their recycling infrastructure?

Trautmann
That's a great question. Like I said, Max and I didn't have any experience in recycling, in coastal restoration, or anything like that. We truly just had an idea and a passion to make a difference in New Orleans and in Louisiana in recycling, and we went for it. The first thing we did was create a GoFundMe and put a line out to the New Orleans community like, hey, what do you think of this? Would you be interested in supporting our GoFundMe? Do you even want to see this? And we had no idea how that would go. And obviously, it ended up going really well. And we were shocked at the at the interest in New Orleans to do something like this. And so, my advice would be to just go for it, if you have an idea or if you have something that you want to see happen. Go for it, ask your community for help, don't be afraid to ask for help. And once you put that idea out there, you'll you'll see a lot of good feedback coming back and and be able to collaborate with others.

Hildner
So like you said, you guys have grown dramatically since your inception. You’re how, how many million pounds now recycled of glass?

Trautmann
Two.

Hildner
Two million pounds. So not having a background in recycling, what have been your biggest lessons learned, whether it be operational or scientific or just in general, running an organization like this?

Trautmann
We've learned a lot. But it's also hard to say, you know, if I had known how hard it would be or how much money it would take, it's hard to say if we would have gone through with it. So I'm, I'm cautious to say, you know, I wish I had known this or I wish I had known that, because I'm so, so happy at where we are today and how we ended up here. It's been incredible. And if I had known what it'd be like, I don't know if I would have done it. If I'd known how sweaty it'd be and how much work it would be. Yeah, I'm not sure if I would have done it. But we've learned a lot about planning ahead. And nearly every, in every single facility we've been in, so we started in a backyard. We filled that up with glass, and then we moved to a small warehouse, we filled it up with glass. And then now we're in a 40,000-square-foot warehouse that's also filled with glass. Like we keep just like accepting way too much glass than we can handle, which is an incredible problem to have. Because it's so clear that there's a huge demand for glass recycling in this area. And it's inspiring to see, and it also like lights a fire under us to to keep on recycling and to keep growing. But it's definitely been one of the biggest issues we are continually facing, which is being able to scale up quickly enough to meet the demand. Because obviously, that takes a lot of money. And we've only been able to raise capital so far through crowdfunding and two grants. And so, you know, trying to figure out where to get that next influx of capital in order to scale up to continue to meet that demand is really challenging and something we're we're still struggling with.

Hildner
What's next for the organization? Is it finding more investors? Is it taking it outside of New Orleans, getting new facilities? What do you kind of have planned for the next five years, let's say?

Trautmann
Yeah. Within the next year, we plan to do a capital fundraise to raise at least $1.5 million, in order to move into a larger facility with larger machinery, and kind of stop doing this this thing that we've been doing, which is growing incrementally. And sort of make that jump to be able to recycle all of the glass in the Greater New Orleans region, and really make a large scale up. And so, that'll be hopefully within the next one to two years, we'll be able to move into a new facility with a machine that is 20 times more capable of recycling glass than the one we have, right. So instead of recycling at one to two tons per hour, we'll be recycling at 20 tons per hour, which will definitely be sufficient to handle the glass in the Greater New Orleans region. And once we kind of have this market down and we're able to recycle all the glass in this region, we hope to expand to other areas. So some some places we're looking at are like Shreveport, Louisiana. We've had a lot of interest in Florida. We're especially looking for places who also have coastal erosion issues, so that we can kind of continue that goal as well.

Hildner
I love the idea of taking a product from the market, recycling in the market, and then using that product to help the market, in terms of erosion. So can you let our listeners know how they can get involved with Glass Half Full, and how they can support you and your mission?

Trautmann
Yes. So like we said, we are active on TikTok and Instagram, you can find us @glasshalffull.nola and support our content there. You can also volunteer with us if you're in New Orleans or visiting New Orleans. We love seeing people from all over the country come and visit and volunteer with us. And that's on our website. You can just check out ghfno.com. And yeah, maybe invest in us, if this is open to you. Email me franziska@glasshalffullnola.org and let's chat. We're also, we love collaborating with truly anyone, nonprofits, brands, government. Let's see how we can work together and recycle more glass.

Hildner
Amazing. Well, thank you so much for being here to let us know more about Glass Half Full. We're so grateful for the work that you do in the city and on behalf of Tulane and with Tulane. So thank you and thank you for being here.

Trautmann
Thank you so much for having me.

Hildner
Thanks for listening to this episode of On Good Authority. For more information on other episodes, please visit our website at tulane.edu/on-good-authority. And if you like our show, please subscribe using your favorite podcast app.

Host: Becca Hildner
Editor: Marianna Boyd
Producer: Audrey Burroughs
Production team: Marianna Boyd, Keith Brannon, Will Burdette, Audrey Burroughs, Faith Dawson, Roger Dunaway, Aryanna Gamble, Becca Hildner, Mike Strecker, Lance Sumler and Roman Vaulin

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