Voice of the Modern Manufacturing Economy Since 2013

Momentum Recycling

by Chris Meehan on April 17, 2017, 07:25 am MDT


Salt Lake City / Broomfield, Colorado

Founded: 2008

Privately owned

Employees: 35 (20 in Utah, 15 in Colorado)

Industry: Supply Chain

Products: Recycled glass

Founder and CEO John Lair has expanded his Utah glass recycling business into Colorado with a focus on supplying the Front Range's bottle manufacturers.

For Lair, just being green isn't enough anymore. "We have to provide savings," he says. Companies are not willing to spend more money on a green alternative in their manufacturing process. . . . It's not a reflection of corporate values, in order to survive and keep their workers employed you have to be absolutely cheaper than the virgin materials."

Momentum Recycling just opened a new facility in Broomfield where every hour it crushes and pulverizes 15 tons of bottles from the Front Range and converts them into the raw materials for, well, glass bottles. It's the second facility for the company, which launched its first recycling plant in Salt Lake City in 2013, and has recycled roughly 100 million pounds of glass in its existence.

When the business started, it was difficult to recycle glass waste in metro Salt Lake. "We formed the business with intention of combining profitability with social good," he says. "We realized there was a great opportunity to apply that into other markets and Denver was a great fit."

Separated by about 500 miles geographically, the two markets are worlds apart. "In glass recycling, you need an anchor customer," Lair says. In Colorado, those anchor customers are bottle makers: the Owens-Illinois plant in Windsor and Rocky Mountain Bottle Company in Wheat Ridge, a joint venture of Owens-Illinois and Coors.

It's a different situation in Utah. With no bottle manufacturers in the state, Momentum Recycling's anchor customer is a fiberglass manufacturing facility. "Their requirements for a finished product are different than for bottle manufacturing so our equipment in Salt Lake is tailored to the needs of that customer," Lair explains.  "They want the product to be a 12-mesh or smaller, think beach sand or playground sand in size and they want it very clean -- no organics, no moisture, no metals, ceramics, rocks and stones -- just glass."

Color is another consideration, he adds. "The specifications will vary from fiberglass plant as to color. In Utah, they don't want brown glass, but all the others."

Lair says the Broomfield plant has different specifications because of its customers and well as the recycling system. "In Colorado, the bottle manufacturers want a product size that's three-eighths of an inch in size and larger. They don't want sandy stuff. They want pebble-sized stuff and bigger. They like all the colors, but they need to be separated."

To process the glass, it has to be clean, and getting there requires some treatment. In Utah, there's no single-stream recycling; people have to pay to participate or drop glass off at specific locations. In Colorado, glass comes from material recovery facilities (MRFs) via single-stream recycling, so it's often much dirtier than it is in Salt Lake City. "The equipment here in Denver must be much more technically advanced than in Utah," says Lair.

Either way, he adds, it needs to be processed before being recycled. "We heat it to very low temperatures . . . between 140 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit to neutralize sugars, kill bacteria, and loosen glue that holds the paper labels." Other than the natural gas used to heat the glass, there are no emissions. "Nor do we use any water in the processing," he adds.  

In all, it costs the company about $25 a ton to process glass into a finished product for fiberglass in Utah, according to Lair. "We manufacture other products, like sandblast media and water filtration media," he says. "Those products are more expensive and time consuming to make and require more labor and machine time" -- but thay can make use of the otherwise unusable brown glass in Utah. "The costs per ton for those products are about $35 per ton."

Lair says it's too soon to give similar figures for the facility in Colorado, which opened in February 2017, but he offers some clarity. "It's more technically sophisticated so it means more automation whether you like it or not. I am hopeful the price per ton will be much lower, as much as half of what we spend in Utah. But to offset that we have higher debt costs because this was much more expensive in terms of equipment."

But the Rockies have some catching up to do. The national glass-recycling rate is 34 percent. Utah has seen its recycling rate triple from about 5 percent to 15 percent since Momentum launched operations there, Lair estimates. The Salt Lake facility recycles about 13,00 tons of glass a year.

Lair forecasts that the Broomfield plant will recycle as much as 50,000 tons of glass a year, a figure that would increase Colorado's rate of glass recycling from about 6 percent to more than 21 percent all on its own.

Challenges: Workforce issues, says Lair. "We have a tight labor market right now. We're paying more to keep good people. We're in expansion mode and we need to find people to fill new spots, that can be an issue as we get it up running and learning how to operate this new plant."

Opportunities: "You need to be able sell every bit of the glass you process," Lair notes. "That means you have to lean on these other markets, the sandblast and water media, asphalt, seal coating, paint fillers. . . . It's key to harness all of those so you can always have a market for the material."

Needs: Market awareness in both Utah and Colorado. "We will be spending a lot time evangelizing glass recycling," says Lair. "We'd love to see the glass recycling rate climb above 50 percent over the years and we'll be spending a lot of effort on that."

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