Andy Sponseller recently soldered a custom wine-bottle washing rack to fit inside Ten Spoon Winery and Vineyard's newly acquired high-temperature dishwasher. The need for Sponseller's handiwork goes to show just how uncommon it is to wash and reuse beverage bottles. It's also a sign that the Hobart dishwasher is about to get a lot of use.
Ten Spoon, the winery that sits on five idyllic acres in the Rattlesnake Valley, finds itself embarking on a glass-reuse program few wineries in the country have undertaken. Beginning whenever local customers drop off enough used and rinsed Ten Spoon bottles—and Ten Spoon bottles only—to ensure a constant supply, the winery will wash them, sterilize them, fill them back up, slap new labels on them, and send them back out to store shelves and dinner tables.
Sponseller says the program is an environmental and economic no-brainer.
"You know you need this packaging," he explains, sitting on a stool inside the winery's tasting room, "so why not take packaging back from your local community, satisfy the desire in the community to recycle or reuse, save space in the landfills, and internalize your packaging labor costs? Why wouldn't you do that? It totally makes sense on every level to do it...
"It's an effort though," he continues. "The easiest thing has always been to buy new supplies. And that's been the nature of our throw-away culture."
Sponseller says reusing glass is significantly more efficient than recycling it. Crushing glass into cullet, reducing it in a furnace and melting it into a bottle uses about 25 percent less energy than making a new bottle from raw materials, he says, citing industry norms. Alternately, Sponseller says reusing a bottle uses about 94 percent less energy. With Missoula accounting for about a quarter of Ten Spoon's wine production—totaling between 4,000 and 6,000 cases per year—Sponseller hopes the environmental impact will be substantial.
The winery set up a bottle drop-off station outside its tasting room, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week. The bottles will be sterilized 30 at a time on Sponseller's custom rack, blasted with 185-degree water.
Economically, Sponseller suspects the process will cost about the same as buying bottles new.
"So there's a not a big margin of economic incentive for us to do it," he says. "[But] the measuring stick people use for economic incentive is usually about the most immediate profit and loss. It's not about the whole equation...That's one of the major problems with our society: We don't look at what it costs the environment, we don't look at total energy."
Even if bottle reuse doesn't save Ten Spoon money, Sponseller hopes eager recyclers loath to toss out a product recyclable in almost every other state may be more likely to buy Ten Spoon wine for its green appeal. He's quick to point out the wines are already certified organic and produced mainly with grapes that are grown in Montana.
"I think in this world of oil spills and climate change and more and more competition for resources, that yes, people will want to do business with people who are doing something that addresses all of those problems," Sponseller says.
Ten Spoon's not the only beverage producer in town finding creative ways to get around Montana's glaring lack of a glass recycling program. Earlier this year Bayern Brewing began sending its beer bottles to a glass pulverizer in Butte to be crushed into sand and used in construction. Kettlehouse Brewing Co. began canning select beers in 2006 largely because aluminum is locally recyclable (and more travel-friendly), while glass is not. Big Sky Brewing Co. followed suit last year by canning two of its beers.
Montana has a long history of on-again, off-again glass recycling efforts, most of which have succumbed to the reality that Montana is too remote for glass recycling to be cost-effective.
But in the absence of a statewide solution, Sponseller sees room for new, and perhaps more lasting, approaches.
"Sustainability becomes real," he says, "when people see it on their own scale and right around them, rather than asking, 'Well, what can we do to get the whole state of Montana or the whole country into the recycling?'"