Keep Waco Beautiful diverts waste from landfills one district at a time

Photo illustration by Olivia Havre | Photographer

By Avery Ballmann | Staff Writer

Keep Waco Beautiful, a local non-profit focused on sustainability, began their recycling pilot program six years ago with just four blue bins and a chain-link fence. Flash forward to 2023: they have partnered with Strategic Materials, City of Waco Solid Waste, Pernod Ricard and USA and Owens-Illinois, a glass manufacturer, to increase accessibility to recycling to the community.

Keep Waco Beautiful is managing O-I’s Glass4Good campaign, making Waco the first city in Texas to have this initiative. The gigantic purple bin is hard to miss located in the alleyway behind Stay Classy Waco Cocktail and Wine Bar.

Before the initiative, if Wacoans wanted to donate their glass, they had to drive to the Cobbs Recycling Center, a 15-minute drive from Baylor’s campus. With Glass4Good, Keep Waco Beautiful’s goal is to have a bin located in all five of Waco’s districts by the end of this year.

The bins make recycling easier because there will be multiple locations and donors don’t need to separate the glass by color or take the labels off.

Carole Fergusson, executive director of Keep Waco Beautiful, said she wanted to infiltrate the downtown district first since there are a lot of businesses that utilize glass. The second district on their radar is district one, which is located in East Waco.

“We wanted to tackle these areas first because it was important that we had equitable access to class recycling for everyone,” Fergusson said.

When a person donates a piece of glass, the journey of this bottle begins in one hand and ends back in another. Once the bins are full, Waco’s Solid Waste Department takes the glass to be weighed at Cobbs Recycling Center. Once weighed, the pounds are calculated and that money is donated to United Way, a local grassroots movement. From there, the recycled material will go to O-I’s glass factory where the glass will be crushed up and turned into cullet, an ingredient to make glass. Then, the cullet is shipped to Strategic Materials.

Once the cullet arrives at Strategic Materials, the glass will be melted down into a new bottle. The bottle’s journey from the Glass4Good bin back to the shelf takes around 30 to 60 days.

Though this process seems lengthy, it works like a conveyor belt where everyone has a specific job to complete.

“Trying to navigate the glass recycling solutions definitely has not been easy, but the timing of all this was kind of perfect,” Fergusson said. “It had all the right people come together but it wouldn’t have happened without that groundwork that Ashley [Millerd] and Linda [Ferrell] had been trying to see this project come to life.”

The pilot project, created by administrative outreach coordinator at Waco Solid Waste Department Ashley Millerd and volunteer programs manager at Keep Waco Beautiful Linda Ferrell, started with limited resources and space. Now, after years of groundwork being laid, the GLASS4GOOD project is able to expand across all of Waco’s districts.

“We are actually the only program they have launched where it incorporates a municipality, a nonprofit and an actual factory,” Millerd said. “[O-I is] kind of utilizing our program to pitch it to other people, so I’m super excited to see how successful [it becomes].”

Millerd said it is now more cost efficient to make glass from recycled cullet than using virgin material. A few years ago, the opposite was the case and the need for diversion is necessary.

“It’s benefiting the rest of the world because we’re not utilizing virgin material,” Millerd said. “They’re able to keep their costs down low and their carbon footprint low and not utilize as much energy and so like I said, the whole program is a win, win, win, win, win, win, win.”

Millerd used to work in the service industry and said she remembers carrying 55-gallon trash bags full of bottles that used to go straight into the dumpsters. But if bars had the new recycling bin, there would be no need for the manual labor and it reduces waste. This is how she pitched the idea to Stay Classy.

Though the bins are convenient, there is a more evident problem the city is facing that makes the initiative even more useful. According to Millerd, Waco’s current landfill has only a year and a half to two years left before it fills up completely. She said the more waste people can divert, the better.

“With this whole system, you’d not only have a huge diversion effort, but it saves on emissions for making glass, it saves on product, materials, costs and it also is adding jobs to the economy while donating to an area organization like United Way,” Fergusson said. “So, it’s a really cool system to see how you can work together on a project to recycle glass and see that it benefits more than just diverting from the landfill.”

Fergusson said Keep Waco Beautiful’s goal for recycling expands beyond the bins. She said they want to have a bin available for Baylor’s move-out day and take advantage of the new Bridge Street Farmer’s Market. To stay updated on bin openings and emissions statistics, follow Keep Waco Beautiful on social media.