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Downtown glass recycling program captures nearly 3 million bottles

April 21, 2017


Ozarks Headwaters is saving the world.

It started with a problem. Each week, local restaurants and bars were generating a massive volume of glass bottles that went straight to the landfill. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity. That makes it one of the most eco-friendly food and beverage packaging options. However, the most recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that less than 30 percent of glass manufactured in the United States is recycled each year. That’s where Ozarks Headwaters Recycling and Materials Management District (OHRD) comes in.

In 2008, Springfield’s Urban Districts Alliance secured a grant from OHRD, then known as District O, to begin a glass recycling initiative. At that time, Larry Zehner had retired from his job as a bank examiner. “I got tired of putting a tie around my neck,” he laughs. Zehner, a proud grandfather and Navy veteran, was doing maintenance work for the Downtown CID to make ends meet when he found himself thrust into an important new role. Now Zehner calls himself the Glass Recycling Emperor, which isn’t far from the truth.

He can be spotted cruising Downtown and Commercial Street for up to eight hours a day, hauling barrel upon barrel of used glass bottles. It’s all in a day’s work for Zehner, who spends around 20 hours a week collecting glass bottles from local businesses for recycling. OHRD has awarded around $150,000 to support Downtown glass recycling since 2008, which makes Zehner’s work possible.

Four days a week, Zehner visits more than 45 Downtown and C-Street businesses. He’s placed 35-gallon glass recycling containers at each spot, which he rolls to his bright yellow truck one by one on pickup days. 16 or 17 barrels later, the truck bed is full. Zehner transports the barrels to Springfield’s Franklin Avenue Recycling Center, backing up the truck to a recycling bin and dumping each barrel into the bin by hand. Peer inside the bin and you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the smell and appearance of thousands of glass bottles.

After the drop, Zehner cleans the containers, spraying the inside of each barrel until any stickiness has been washed away. “My goal is to have cleanest containers in the city,” says Zehner. He explains that if he’s lax on cleaning, the containers can attract insects, which is a no-go for businesses.

After cleaning, Zehner returns the barrels. The entire process takes around an hour, and that’s only one load. The work is especially arduous after a pub crawl or other festive occasion. On days like that, a single venue can generate upwards of four containers. At around 122 bottles per container, that’s nearly 500 bottles.

The amount of glass recycled through the CID initiative is steadily growing. At the end of the first quarter of 2017, nearly 3 million bottles had been recycled.

The bottles recycled at the Franklin Avenue Center have a promising future. According to Zehner, Ripple Glass from Kansas City picks up the glass in 25-ton loads and transports it to a processing plant in Kansas City. There, the glass is processed for use as fiberglass insulation. Some of the insulation then goes straight to Habitat for Humanity, an organization committeed to building homes for individuals and families in need of affordable housing. It’s that impact that makes it all worth it for Zehner. Want to see the eco-friendly magic for yourself? Catch the Glass Recycling Emperor in his yellow truck on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.