We first published this story before the co-op’s completion. The new drop-off site officially opened in November 2021, and as of fall 2022 we estimate the participating breweries and businesses have diverted 600,000 pounds (300 tons!) of material from landfill. Sonoco Recycling also acquired American Recycling of Western North Carolina, taking over co-op operations.
For Hi-Wire Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina, certain kinds of recycling came easy.
“We’re across the road from a scrapyard,” explains Luke Holgate, head brewer at Hi-Wire, “so aluminum and metal and things like that, that was never a problem.”
But Luke remembers the early days of Hi-Wire, established in 2013, when they started discovering how many common brewery materials—shrink wrap, plastic malt bags, polyester strapping—didn’t have simple recycling solutions.
Leah Cooper, Sierra Nevada’s Sustainability Program Manager in Mills River, says recycling for many breweries is much like a household: there’s a landfill bin and a commingled, or single-stream, recycling bin.
“When you put [everything] into a commingled bin,” Leah says, “you increase your risk of contamination and limit the types of materials you can recycle.”
So despite their best attempts, Hi-Wire knew some of their recycling was destined for landfill.
“It was just kinda like, well, this is terrible,” Luke says, “We [were] creating so much waste.”
They were frustrated, and so were other breweries and manufacturers in Western North Carolina. We’ve felt it, too, and in the last few years, we looked for ways to help.
Our first idea seemed obvious: let’s share what we have.
Over time, we’ve been able to invest in equipment to handle these problematic materials. We can separate them, process them, and transport them to recyclers—daunting barriers for most businesses.
So in early 2019 we said Bring your stuff to us.
“But very quickly, within maybe two months, our team was just totally overwhelmed,” Leah recalls. “We had [some] people coming in multiple times a week…and it was very time intensive for us.”
Luke from Hi-Wire jokes about that tipping point.
“I think we might have been part of breaking that system,” he laughs. “We were bringing our box truck full of grain bags one day and full of cardboard the next. I think that’s kind of what opened Sierra’s eyes to, okay, there’s a lot of mid-sized breweries around here that want to do this right.”
“I think we might have been part of breaking that system. We were bringing our box truck full of grain bags one day and full of cardboard the next. I think that’s kind of what opened Sierra’s eyes to, okay, there’s a lot of mid-sized breweries around here that want to do this right.”
An industry-wide problem, with a shared sense of responsibility, clearly needed a bigger fix.
“We had heard about recycling cooperatives,” Leah says, “both from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which supports business recycling…and then also within the brewing industry.”
In a recycling cooperative, participants pool their resources to increase everyone’s access to recycling infrastructure. Cooperatives, or co-ops, not only keep waste out of landfills; they also help circulate materials back into production loops. (Think polyester strapping going toward new plastic bottles or even household carpet.)
We looked to other breweries like Allagash in Maine, Bell’s in Michigan, and Great Divide in Colorado who had co-ops in place or were launching their own. What worked best for their scenarios was building infrastructure at a specific brewery—a baler designed for malt bags, for example—and fellow breweries traveled there to make drop-offs.
We briefly considered that approach. Maybe one material goes to Riverbend Malt House, another material to Wicked Weed Brewing, and so on.
“We tried to create a route where one [collection] truck could come to multiple breweries in order get all this waste, but it was just way too expensive,” Leah says.
You’re paying for transportation, a variety of equipment, and encountering a familiar issue: do these breweries have the staff and time to receive and manage piles of material?
And then a breakthrough: the state’s Department of Environmental Quality pointed us to their Regional Recycling Infrastructure Grant Program.
“That’s available to recycling companies,” Leah explains. “So material recovery facilities, like American Recycling [of Western North Carolina], apply for funds to build out infrastructure that would impact multiple communities.”
So we shifted our thinking, Leah says, to a model where we partner with American Recycling to enhance their facility—the place where recycling materials already go. We could build a unique drop-off spot at American Recycling, keeping it separate from hectic commercial traffic. Co-op members could offload materials at their leisure, and the right equipment would be waiting: balers for shrink wrap and malt bags, a chipper for polyester strapping.
But we had to get the grant first.
We put our heads down alongside American Recycling to craft our proposal: the vision, the impact, the construction, and the crucial pieces of funding and community support. The grant would cover up to 85% of project costs, and we had to provide the rest. We needed to be sure enough breweries in Western North Carolina were on board, to the point of chipping in financially with us.
We enlisted the help of the Asheville Brewers Alliance (ABA) to gauge interest. Leah Rainis, executive director of the ABA, says it was a “no brainer” to help.
“Collaboration is at the core of what we’re about,” she says, “and supporting our members through education and efforts like this, especially in Western North Carolina where good stewardship is such a priority among our makers.”
They sent a survey to ABA members, asking what their current recycling operations looked like and if a co-op program was appealing. We also hosted a kick-off meeting to dive deeper, and 15 different breweries and businesses showed up. The resulting letters of commitment, as well as dollars donated, set us fully in motion.
In August of 2020, we got the good word: American Recycling won the grant. Construction for the drop-off site is underway, with an opening just months out.
For some, this recycling co-op is the missing puzzle piece.
“A big part of our story is local sourcing,” says Brent Manning, co-founder of Riverbend Malt House. “Beyond that, from a production standpoint…we’ve always had partnerships with local farmers to keep [spent] material out of landfill. But this recycling piece that captures our packaging waste was really kind of the last big-ticket thing that we were trying to find a better solution for.”
“This recycling piece that captures our packaging waste was really kind of the last big-ticket thing that we were trying to find a better solution for.”
Riverbend, like most craft maltsters, typically packages grain in either 50-pound bags or what’s called a “super sack,” a giant tote that can hold 2,000 pounds, or 1 ton, of grain. Brent says those super sacks have an empty weight of 6 pounds, and he estimates that in 2019 they generated 5–6 tons of waste from discarded super sacks alone.
It’s hard, then, to overstate just how much of a difference this recycling co-op can make.
Not to mention, it can help a brewery’s bottom line.
While there is a transportation trade off—a truck doesn’t come to you; you make the trip yourself—there is no fee to be a co-op member.
“The idea is that if businesses can reduce or eliminate their waste services, they’re reducing costs,” says Sierra Nevada’s Leah Cooper, “Ideally, participants could replace their recycling services or would be paying less for hauling landfill waste because they’re shrinking the amount going to landfill.”
And if we learned anything from hosting a temporary drop-off at Sierra Nevada, Leah says, is that the burden of transportation is not as significant as the interest of these businesses in living out their values. So far, breweries from four counties—a roughly 60-mile radius around American Recycling—have said Count us in.
And Hi-Wire Brewing, with the recycling co-op in mind, is thinking long term. They created a new job, one focused on managing their environmental impact.
“It kind of led us to realize that, as we’re going to keep growing, we need to invest in sustainability,” Luke says. “It’s not something that happens without it.”