Rinse ’Em and Reap

By John Darling

When you set your wine bottles at the curb, you’re under the impression they’ll be reused or recycled into bottles again, right?

Well, guess again. No glass picked up in the Rogue Valley sees life again as bottles for wine or anything similar; something the wine industry is now starting to change by sending wine bottles to newly founded Wine Bottle Renew in Stockton, Calif., where they’re de-labeled, sterilized and sold back to wineries.

“This is revolutionary for the wine industry,” said Barbara Steele, co-owner of Cowhorn Winery, the region’s first winery to serve as a collection point for Wine Bottle Renew.

Wineries typically have to dispose of 5 to 20 percent of their bottles from tasting rooms and events, says Steele, and she’s trying to recruit the region’s wineries to the cause, which she has named The RINSE Project.

Barbara and her husband, Bill Steele, will collect bottles and have Agri-Plas, a Brooks-based recycler of agricultural plastics, drive them to the 92,000-square-foot Renew facility in Stockton. The Steeles will then buy them back for about 60 percent less than new bottles.

“People think they’re recycling wine bottles at the curb,” Barbara said, “but there are over 600 different types of wine bottles” and no machine has been able to sort them.

So, what happens to all the glass?

All of it — 744 tons last year, with about 60 percent wine bottles — gets crushed by bulldozers at Dry Creek Landfill, then used as aggregate on-site for roads, parking lots, culverts and to encase perforated pipes that draw energy-generating gases from the landfill, says Dry Creek Landfill general manager Lee Fortier.

The glass is actually being recycled, just not as glass containers. According to Steve DiFabion, general manager of Recology Ashland Sanitary Service, the state Department of Environmental Quality considers it a “beneficial use.” None is thrown away.

Wendell Smith, manager of Rogue Disposal & Recycling, welcomed the news of wine bottle re-use, noting, “It’s got to be a good thing — it’s not going to hurt us at all.”

DiFabion added, “[Bottle re-use] would be phenomenal. It’s exactly what the Valley needs, being so far from good recycling markets. It will have a huge local impact.”

While no wine bottles are recycled as wine bottles in the Ashland area, the figure is 30 percent nationally, says Wine Bottle Renew CEO Bruce Stephens.

Stephens says he expects his operation to be successful because the recycling is cost saving, sterilizes bottles completely, reduces carbon footprint of wineries — 60 percent of wineries’ carbon output is from making and disposing of bottles — and the right bottles always will be in stock. In fact, over 300,000 cases of 150 styles are already available. Stephens sells less popular styles to glass manufacturers.

In order to be recycled at Renew, wine bottles must have no chips. Not a problem for Cowhorn; the Steeles already send used bottles to the Green Glass Company in Wisconsin for use in manufacturing custom glassware.

“Wineries overwhelmingly want to buy our bottles, and most of our buyers are in California now,” Stephens said. “We start washing bottles in November, and they’ll be available for buy-back then.”

Cowhorn, the region’s only Biodynamic winery, will “close the loop” on bottle waste, says Steele, “enabling wineries to cut their carbon footprint and per-bottle cost, while delivering an added value to customers: bottles that are better for the wine and the world.”

Steele says The RINSE Project will solve the problem of “bottle bloom,” where glass becomes cloudy from overexposure to climate and can cause wine spoilage. Wine bottles sterilized through Renew will have a life up to three times longer.

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