Alfred University News

Alfred University researchers present bottle washing project, discuss glass recycling initiatives

Alfred University, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Vitricity, a consulting company focusing on promoting sustainability in the glass industry, held a meeting Wednesday for wine producers from the Finger Lakes Region to discuss a program researching ways to wash and reuse wine bottles.

The bottle washing project is part of a larger initiative in which glass scientists from Alfred University, in partnership with the DEC, are studying ways to make manufacturing processes involving glass more environmentally friendly.

The FLX Bottle Reuse Banquet was hosted by Barrelhouse 6 Distillery, located on Keuka Lake outside Hammondsport and co-founded by Alfred University alumna Kara Mackey ’88. Greg Palmer, CEO of Vitricity, and Arron Potter, a post-doctorate researcher working in Alfred University’s Center for Glass Innovation (CGI), gave updates on the bottle washing project to a group of wine producers from the Finger Lakes Region.

Collin Wilkinson, professor of glass science at Alfred University, who also directs the CGI, gave a presentation in the University’s research into glass sustainability, an initiative supported by $4.2 million in grant funding from the DEC’s Environmental Protection Fund.

Palmer said the purpose of Wednesday’s event was to share with wine producers in the Finger Lakes Region an economic analysis of a system for washing wine bottles for reuse; discuss the science behind the initiative and its environmental impact; and to facilitate communication among key stakeholders—the wine producers, the DEC, and glass researchers.

With a dearth of glass recycling facilities in the state, particularly in Central and Western New York, many of the bottles that originate from wineries in the region wind up in landfills. The bottle washing project aims to significantly remove the amount of wine bottles that go into the waste stream while also helping wine producers realize financial savings.

The initiative faces some challenges—developing a system for collecting bottles for cleaning and returning them to the wineries; minimizing damage (cracking, scratching) to bottles during the collection and transportation process; logistics; label removal, and meeting the up-front costs of developing bottles washing facilities. “If we can move past those issues, we’ll see some real benefits,” Palmer commented.

Palmer said the “economies of scale” determine the viability of the project: the more wineries that participate, the more bottles are collected, driving the overall cost down. “As the scale increases, you get something that is significantly cheaper than traditional bottle production.”

The “break-even” point, where washing and reusing bottles becomes more cost effective than purchasing new bottles, is about 40,000 per month. There are about 130 wine producers in the region; a survey done by Vitricity revealed that on average, wineries use about 10,000 bottles per year in their tasting rooms alone, which equates to an estimated 108,000 per month.

The average cost for purchasing a new bottle is about $1.05, Palmer said; depending on how many wine producers participate, the cost of washing and reusing bottles could be as low as 10 cents per bottle.  The key to making the endeavor a success is getting as many wineries as possible a possible on board.

“Community participation controls viability,” Palmer commented. He said if 80,000 bottles per month were cleaned for reuse, “it could result in both a self-sustaining business and a significant reduction in cost” to wine producers.

Palmer said that initially, the project would target bottles originating from winery tasting rooms, “the lowest hanging fruit.” Studies into the cost of building a washing facility and purchasing the requisite equipment and creating a cost-effective method of collection and transportation of bottles from and back to the wineries are ongoing.

Initial surveys show that most wine producers, about 79 percent, are interested in the concept. Palmer estimated that 80 percent of the wine producers would need to participate to reach the 40,000 bottle per month threshold for breaking even.

“You really need scale to make this worthwhile,” Palmer said. “It would be hard to do with just a handful of wineries.”

Concerns among wine producers include retaining the ability to use their own unique bottles, as opposed to adopting a universal bottle, and ensuring that bottles are not damaged in transport. Palmer said the next step is for wine producers to share their concerns with Vitricity and the DEC; talk among each other as a community; and consider testing the concept with a tasting room-only implementation.

“The (wine producers) who said ‘no’ they’re not interested cited logistics; the process is hard,” Palmer said. “But the level of interest shows there is a lot of passion about this.”

Potter talked about the research he and fellow glass scientists are currently performing with regard to the bottle washing process. He explained that glass is minutely porous—its pores are measured in nanometers, which equates to billionths of a meter. Liquid stored in bottles—in this case, wine—can degrade glass and settle under the surface of the inside of the bottle. That residue is evident in its odor and potentially could impact the taste of the wine. He compared the effect wine has on a bottle to that which pickles have on a jar. “It’s a major issue among wine producers,” Potter said.

Potter’s research is looking into a method of washing the bottle, using a cleaning agent such as sodium hydroxide, in which a very thin layer—as small as a micron, or one-millionth of a meter—of the glass surface is removed, taking away any residual moisture, and scent molecules, and leaving a new, more pristine interior surface of the bottle. Research uses infrared microscopy to determine the thickness of the layer of glass which needs to be removed from the interior bottle surface.

The newer bottles, those two or three years old, are most susceptible to being compromised by scent molecules, Potter noted. The retained liquid content in a bottle diminishes as the bottle ages.

Wilkinson gave a presentation on Alfred University’s overall glass sustainability research efforts in conjunction with the DEC grant program.

“Bottle reuse is just one of the things we’re trying to understand about glass reuse and sustainability in New York State,” he said. “We are really trying to deploy sustainability methods across several businesses and industries.”

Among the projects Wilkinson and his fellow researchers are undertaking are ways to recycle components in photovoltaic solar panels. The methods they are researching to remove the glass from the panels’ other layers (plastics, silicon cells, aluminum casing) include using solvents, heat (thermal delamination), and mechanical separation. “The challenge is to develop ways to separate the glass from the laminates without breakage,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said scientists at Alfred are also studying ways to use recycled glass as an aggregate in the manufacture of cement. Research has shown glass can fortify cement used to make concrete in a marine environment, such as in sea walls, where traditionally-manufactured concrete can break down. Scientists at Alfred are also studying ways to use recycled glass as an aggregate in materials used to 3-D print buildings.

The DEC-funded projects are part of an overall effort to promote a circular economy, in which a waste product—in this case, glass—is reused for another purpose, such as strengthening concrete. “By using recycled glass, we can reduce the carbon footprint” of a number of manufacturing processes, Wilkinson said. “The question becomes, how do we reuse glass in a way that makes financial sense.”