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Growing Rochester firm breaks into new glass recycling market

Watson Recycling, based on 12 acres at 81st Street on Rochester's northern border, has broken into a new market by inventing a one-of-a-kind machine to recycle architectural glass. Architectural glass or laminated glass has layers of plastic sandwiched between panes of glass.

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Panes of laminated glass wait to be recycled at Infinite Recycled Technologies, a division of Watson Recycling, in Albert Lea. (Andrew Link / alink@postbulletin.com)

Sometimes finding a new niche for a company means shattering a barrier that all of your competitors have ignored, despite the opportunity being clear as glass.

Millions of tons of laminated or architectural glass used in buildings and vehicles are dumped into landfills every year. The challenge is to separate the plastic sandwiched between the panes of glass to end up with “clean” glass and plastic to be sold as commodities to be reused.

Rochester’s Watson Recycling started talking to area manufacturer clients that use glass. Glass manufacturers have a failure rate between 10 and 25 percent. One mid-sized manufacturer might send an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 tons of laminated glass to the landfill each year.

That's a lot of laminated glass that's just going into the trash. And it can take an estimated 1 million years for that glass to break down to its components.

CEO Jeremiah Watson and President of Business Development Patrick Elmore determined that architectural glass was a mostly untapped recycling market with only a few international firms and none in the U.S. working with it.

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Patrick Elmore, Jeremiah Watson, Glen Watson and John Watson.

Once they identified the opportunity, the Watson R&D team rolled up its sleeves and started designing a device to process the glass for recycling.

About two years later, they had a one-of-a-kind machine that successfully transformed a pane of all kinds of laminated glass and mirrors into piles of separate parts that can be recycled.

It is a business-to-business venture with Infinite contracting with manufacturers to take their waste and then the processed material is sold as a commodity to companies that can use the raw material to make other glass and plastic products.

“The great thing about this is that we can take what was a waste material and after we process it, we have a marketable product. It makes financial sense. It works and it does something good,” said Watson.

Watson and Elmore acknowledge that a small firm in Rochester solving a problem that none of the major U.S. or even international recyclers have is a bit surprising.

“I cannot think of any reason why someone has not done it yet, besides us," said Elmore. "We’re no geniuses. This should have been started 20 years ago. It's still kind of stunning to me.”

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To Albert Lea and beyond

Watson launched Infinite Recycled Technologies at the start of 2020 to put the prototype machine into operation. The pandemic stalled the process for a few months, but soon the fledgling operation ramped up to a 65,000-square-foot facility in Albert Lea.

Now running a 2.0 processing machine and a staff of 20 on site, the Watson/Infinite operation recycled approximately 17 million pounds of glass and plastic that previously would have been dumped into a landfill.

The recycling business is regional due to the logistics required to pick up glass and then shipping out the processed materials to buyers as a commodity. The Albert Lea operation processes glass from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota. The growing number of area clients include Hayfield Windows, K & M Glass and Hentges Glass.

The next phase will start in November, when Infinite will launch another architectural glass recycling operation in Ocala, Fla., to process tons of “hurricane” glass. The first phase will be housed in a temporary facility, while Watson acquires land to build a permanent processing complex.

“There's a tremendous amount of waste glass in Florida,” said Watson of why the next move is to expand there.

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The recycled glass is reduced to powder

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Watson, whose family has been involved with waste disposal and recycling dating back to the 1800s, says that he is just as surprised as anyone that they have taken the lead on this. However, successfully breaking the code of processing architectural glass opens the door to unlimited potential from growth and expansion into new regional markets.

Elmore estimates that 12 million tons of glass are disposed annually in the U.S. with much of that being architectural glass. That adds up to the weight of 19 ships the size of the Titanic combined, he said.

“The need is astronomical. The sky's the limit. There could be 100 (companies recycling architectural glass) more of us in just the United States alone, and we still wouldn't scratch the surface,” said Watson.

Deep roots and incremental growth

However, the family-owned Rochester company plans to be strategic with its growth.

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Glass is brought in for processing at Infinite Recycling's Albert Lea facility.

In 2011, the family more than tripled the size of Watson Recycling by building a $3.5 million facility on 12 acres at 81st Street, just beyond Rochester's northern border. The firm had maxed out its former Rochester facility on North Broadway. They added whole car recycling and began accepting ferrous metals at the new site.

“We have just incrementally grown every year from the first year we started out here to now,” he said sitting in his office at the Rochester facility. ”We're doing more than double the amount of volume today than when we first started out here.”

The Infinite Recycling venture is just the latest for the Watson family, which has deep roots in southeastern Minnesota.

When Rochester documented its first city landfill in the 1890s, William Watson -- Jeremiah’s great-great-grandfather was appointed as the “chief scavenger.” His job was to go through the dump and pull out anything that could be reused or sold for raw material.

Watson’s grandfather and father -- Rodney Watson and Glen Watson -- also worked with trash and recycling. Glen Watson now serves as president of the recycling operation that launched in 2006 with many of his 16 children working for the company.

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Glass is processed by Infinite Recycling at its Albert Lea facility.

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