Meet the UMD student behind the “Break Box”: A trailer where people can smash glass
Ryan Perpall, a senior American studies major at the University of Maryland, founded Break Box Recycling. These colorful glass vials are some of the products that his startup creates from broken recycled glass. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)
Blue, green and purple shards of glass winked brightly under white lights in the University of Maryland’s Do Good Accelerator.
The crushed glass — also referred to as cullet — was preserved in resin-filled vials ranging in size from an inch to half-a-foot. It had been molded into an array of objects — chains, flashlights, paperweights, earrings, a vase.
“You can break [glass] down to a million pieces a million times,” said Ryan Perpall, a senior American studies major at the University of Maryland. “You can always turn it into something beautiful, just as strong.”
That’s why the American studies major founded Break Box Recycling, which is home to two ventures: The Human Bottle Breaker Brand and the CulletHouse brand.
While glass is a fully recyclable material, it can often contaminate other materials when it breaks, Perpall said. And once glass is broken and mixed in with other items, it is very difficult to recover and recycle it.
The Break Box is a mobile trailer that allows paying customers to enter and break glass bottles against a wall. The broken glass is then recycled into art, sold under the CulletHouse brand.
While Perpall hopes participants enjoy a stress-relieving experience, he also hopes to incorporate activities that educate participants on sustainability and recycling.
“Our goal is not to lecture people, our goal is to really have them have an experience, unlike anything — but it is very, very green,” he said.”[You feel] inspired and uplifted, and just kind of like you’ve had like an amazing cathartic release of energy and stress.”
Most cities and counties in the United States use a single-stream recycling system, in which all recyclable materials intermingle on their way to the processing plant. On average, 16 percent of single-stream recyclable materials are contaminated — meaning they often have to head to the landfill, according to the EPA. That rate is 13 percent in Prince George’s County.
Contamination can occur through glass breaking, but also through “wish-cycling,”said Wade Williams, a senior individual studies major and a Sustainability Cooperative member at this university. That’s a term for when people toss items into recycling bins, just hoping they get it right. This desire can lead people to recycle items like broken or dirty glass, cheese-stained pizza boxes and yogurt-laden plastics — all of which could contaminate other materials.
Williams said he supported Perpall’s idea.
“If we can’t recycle glass on our campus, maybe we can support other creative ways to reuse it or repurpose it,” said Williams. “We support the creative-minded people that are trying to figure out other ways to divert our waste.”
Last year, the university stopped recycling glass after its processor, Olive Street Processing, stopped accepting glass from all of its customers. The school is in the process of finding a new vendor who can process glass, a university spokesperson wrote in an email.
“It’s all about the markets,” said Barbara Gear, general manager at Olive Street Processing. By the time all recycled material is processed in the plant, the glass is broken and it’s very difficult to pull out any clean glass, she said. This drives up the companies’ processing costs.
To combat that issue, Perpall said he plans to launch “The Bottle Box,” a mobile glass recycling receptacle that can be taken around the greater College Park area. Here, students, faculty and other campus community members can drop off recyclable glass.
From there, “The Bottle Box” will drop the glass off in one of the “purple cans” in Northern Virginia — a program that allows people to divert their glass from the landfill. The specialized receptacles are located throughout Fairfax County, Arlington County, Prince William County and the city of Alexandria.
Each glass bottle recycled through the “The Bottle Box” will give a 10-cent credit to use in house at Break Box Recycling, Perpall said.
“It’s not a cure-all solution, especially for the amount of glass that is within the university system and greater College Park area,” Perpall said. “But it is a start.”
Perpall’s passion for recycling started years ago. When he was just 8 years old, he said, his favorite part of the day was when the garbage truck stopped by.
So even though running a startup can be hard, he said, it’s worth it.
“It’s not all success,” he said. “It’s been a big learning process. I guess what keeps me going … is fixing this issue.”