In a college dorm room over a bottle of wine, Franziska Trautmann had a question: Where would this wine bottle go when the night was done? Knowing the glass would end up in a landfill, Fran and her boyfriend Max Steitz, both seniors at Tulane University, decided to do something about it.
Learning about the economic and environmental cost of glass recycling, they had to find a better way to keep glass out of landfills. As they looked deeper into the problem they saw an odd issue that had never occurred to them before: Earth has a sand shortage.
This made them think, what if, instead of turning glass back into glass, we turned it into an even more valuable and in-need resource: sand? And so, with this breakthrough, Glass Half Full was born.
Let’s back up. What does that bottle of wine have to do with saving coastal cities like New Orleans, or the concrete that holds our buildings together? Well, it turns out that all of them are dependent on the world’s most used natural resource: sand. Yes, your favorite bottle of red could be a part of saving your beloved beaches thanks to Glass Half Full.
The Vision Behind Glass Half Full
The project that began in a Tulane University dorm room soon transitioned to a backyard, where Fran and Max collected and hand-crushed glass from their friends, and soon their whole community. As word spread, community crowdfunding raised $18,000 in startup costs. Scaling up from there, Glass Half Full quickly became a powerhouse for good in Louisiana, made up of a growing team of staff, volunteers, and members of the local community who together prevent thousands of pounds of glass from ending up in landfills every week. 1
Glass Half Full’s revolutionary idea to crush glass back into sand is solving three big problems.
Problem #1: The Sand Shortage.
Sand is used to make glass. So, could glass be used to make sand?
Now, I had the same puzzled look on my face as you likely do now. Sand shortage? I’ve been to the beach. Come on, there’s tons of sand. Billions and trillions of grains of it. It covers every desert, blankets the floor of every ocean, and lines coasts worldwide. How could we be running out?
Perceived as “cheap, available and infinite,” sand is one of the world’s most used but least thought about commodities, despite the fact that you touch it, walk on it, and look at it every day of your life without even realizing it. Sand is the “primary substance used in the construction of roads, bridges, high speed trains… [and] the glass used in every window, computer screen, and smartphone” 2 It is the most used natural resource in the world, right after air and water. We even use it more than oil. 3
All of these products for which sand is essential means we are using 50 billion metric tons of sand annually, 4 an amount that fast outpaces the rate at which sand is naturally created. So, while the amount of sand on the planet seems infinite, we’re facing a sand shortage; using it up way faster than the Earth can make more.
As it turns out, not all sand is equal, and not all sand can be used for every purpose. For example, desert sand created by wind erosion is too round for many purposes, the wrong shape to lock together to form stable constructions such as concrete. 5 So since we can’t just scoop some sand from the world’s vast deserts, many companies turn to riverbeds. This process of gathering sand is not only super costly for the local environments where the sand is being removed, but also super expensive to do.
Problem #2: Recycling is good, but not good enough.
In a lot of ways, typical recycling doesn’t make sense.
Recycling glass into new glass is a slippery slope in terms of the actual good going on. If there isn’t a recycling center in your immediate area, the gasses emitted in the process of transporting that glass or plastic to the recycling center makes your good deed of putting the container in the recycling bin effectively a net zero.
Secondly, it costs between $70 and $90 to recycle one ton of glass. But here’s the kicker: that glass can then only be sold for about $10 per ton. 6 This makes glass recycling a real lose-lose, with emissions to transport the glass and the significant monetary loss to carry out the process both being solidly in the negative column. (That being said, you know what’s worse? Letting the glass sit in a landfill or float in the ocean for the rest of your life.)
Now, with all the current distrust in recycling systems, we want to make an important note:
This isn’t to say that recycling isn’t worth it. (It is.)
It’s to say that we can’t be content with the solutions we’ve come up with thus far and throw our hands up in the air. We need to keep thinking of new and better ideas to preserve this awesome rock of a planet we call home.
Problem #3: Louisiana’s coastlines are in trouble.
In Louisiana specifically, 1,900 square miles of coast have been lost since 1932 due to sediment supply, wetland plant health, water quality, global sea level change, and more; accounting for 80% of the United States’ national coastal wetland loss. This makes it the first significant battleground state in the fight against coastal erosion. So, why should we care? Well, coastal erosion can make hurricanes and tropical storms stronger, and has the potential to cause significant property damage not only to personal homes but the nation’s energy supplies, economic security, transportation systems, and environmental integrity, not to mention the potential for thousands or even millions of people to lose their homes. 7
With more than half of New Orleans now sitting below sea level, the city needs all the storm protection it can get.
So, the question comes down to this: Is there a way to save Louisiana’s coastlines without further exacerbating the worldwide sand shortage?
That’s where Glass Half Full comes in.
Not only is the sand being used to solve the sand shortage, fix some of the problems with recycling, and restore coastline, but every material involved in their process, start to finish, is considered, too.
Bags to hold the sand are donated by local coffee shops. Cardboard that delivers the bottles are brought to local pig farms to be used as compost. Colored sand is sold to artists and gardeners. Plastic and metal on the bottles is removed and saved for other upcoming recycling projects. Through their methods, absolutely nothing goes to the landfill. They recycle what they can, sell what they can, use what they can, donate what they can, and are thinking up some innovative projects for the rest, for which as Fran cheekily says, we’ll just have to stay tuned.
Their processes crush the glass back into the sand from which it came, and sand that isn’t the right shape for coastal restoration has a place, too. The “too big” sands are used in flooring and gravel, the “too small” sands (the consistency of flour) are used in sandbags that they give away for free, and that coarse goldilocks sand – the sand that is juuuust right – is used for Glass Half Full’s big ticket effort: coastal restoration.
Working with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, Fran and Max hand out the sand in burlap bags which were donated by local coffee roasters. Volunteers load them onto a boat, take them to where they’re most needed, and lay the bags in a line, connecting two pieces of land. A week later, more volunteers return with plants that will take root in the new sand, holding them in place. The bags will biodegrade within 6 months, leaving behind a new strip of land which will encourage the ecosystem to thrive.
It all boils down to this: Step one: get the glass. Step two: smash the glass. Step three: sort the glass. Step four: save the planet. That’s quite the oversimplification of this complicated process, so to learn more about this incredible project, let’s hear from Fran and Max themselves for a deeper look in this video from Business Insider.
A big thank-you to Business Insider for this insightful look into the work of Glass Half Full. For more great content about our World Wide Waste problem and what people around the globe are doing to help, check out their YouTube channel.
Visit the Glass Half Full website to learn more about how you can donate, volunteer, spread the word, and if you live in the New Orleans area, drop off your recycling!
You can also find Fran on TikTok @ecofran for regular updates on what Glass Half Full is up to.
Shattering our ideas of what’s possible!
On your next trip to the beach, you might just be laying your towel down on some shattered bottles. Don’t worry, it is completely safe. Glass Half Full spent considerable time with scientists from Tulane University to make sure the sand was safe. And good news. It doesn’t leech any harmful chemicals (or anything, for that matter) into the water, and plants can root and grow in it just fine. Plus, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for animals either! Fran’s dog accidentally ate some one day, and it went in one end, out the other. No problem.
While Glass Half Full is a long way from solving our worldwide recycling program, their work will hopefully spread not only in practice but in idea, getting the whole world to think critically about the way one problem can be solved with another.
I think this is really more so the story of a community coming together to say “we demand change, and we’re not going to wait any longer.”– Max Steitz, Co-Founder of Glass Half Full
We earthlings have a responsibility to protect our home – the only home we have. The more we support projects like Glass Half Full and convince our friends and family to care, the better off we’ll all be.
For more stories of the innovations saving our planet as we speak, check these articles out next:
Removing 90% of the Ocean’s Plastic in the Next 20 Years is Possible
Just a few months ago in October of 2021, The Ocean Cleanup Project reached a revolutionary milestone with their newest System 002 model: proof of technology. With this massive achievement, the nonprofit is projected to clean 90% of the ocean’s plastic waste in the next 20 years.Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
21 Billion Pounds of Clothes Go to Landfills Every Year… Now FABSCRAP is On the Case!
We’ve mastered how to make the most of food scraps, but what about textile scraps? Let’s meet the female CEO of FABSCRAP, the company transforming textile waste from the apparel design process into a catalyst for a community of changemakers.Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
Mushrooms Could Start Replacing Leather, Bacon, and Styrofoam in the Next 5 Years
Have you ever tasted bacon made of fungi? Received a package cushioned by mushrooms? My guess is not yet… but probably soon! New York-based company Ecovative has created an alternative to plastic, which can save water, time, money, and the planet, too!Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
Don’t forget, we’ve halted a major climate crisis before, and we can do it again.
“Two individuals decided to start this, and now over 2 million pounds of glass are not in a landfill, and [those 2 million pounds of glass] are making a difference in other areas.”– Franziska Trautmann, Co-Founder of Glass Half Full
If nothing else, this story shows that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with spending some time on the floor with a bottle of wine. Who knows, maybe you’ll even come up with an idea that changes the world for the better.
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- Glass. “Glass Half Full.” Glass Half Full, 2014, glasshalffullnola.org/about. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. ↩
- Meredith, Sam. “A Sand Shortage? The World Is Running out of a Crucial — but Under-Appreciated — Commodity.” CNBC, CNBC, 5 Mar. 2021, www.cnbc.com/2021/03/05/sand-shortage-the-world-is-running-out-of-a-crucial-commodity.html. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. ↩
- Ludacer, Rob. “Why the World Is Running out of Sand.” Business Insider, Insider, 11 June 2018, www.businessinsider.com/world-running-out-sand-resources-concrete-2018-6. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. ↩
- Newcomb, Tim. “Earth Is Running out of Sand … Which Is, You Know, Pretty Concerning.” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 2 May 2022, www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a39880899/earth-is-running-out-of-sand/. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. ↩
- Beiser, Vince. “Why the World Is Running out of Sand.” Bbc.com, 2019, www.bbc.com/future/article/20191108-why-the-world-is-running-out-of-sand. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. ↩
- Janes, Brandon. “Is Recycling Glass Worth the Cost?” The Killeen Daily Herald, 20 June 2013, kdhnews.com/news/is-recycling-glass-worth-the-cost/article_8e2dd0e6-d956-11e2-ab95-0019bb30f31a.html. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. ↩
- “Coastal Erosion – NOLA Ready.” Nola.gov, 2015, ready.nola.gov/hazard-mitigation/hazards/coastal-erosion/. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. ↩
- Business Insider. “How Sand Made from Crushed Glass Rebuilds Louisiana’s Shrinking Coast | World Wide Waste.” YouTube, 27 June 2022, www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIOTsBhFF7M. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022. ↩