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Local recycler sees opportunity in laminated 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)
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Sometimes a business opportunity is as clear as glass.

Watson Recycling , a more than 35-year-old family-owned firm based between Rochester and Oronoco, works with many industrial clients to recycle whatever waste they might have. 

"Everything from metal, plastics, wood cardboard... Whatever it is, usually we can find a home for it," CEO Jeremiah Watson said.

However, clients that make laminated or architectural glass proved to be a challenge for Watson. They could not find anywhere in the US that would recycle the product, which consists of layers of glass sandwiched with plastic to add strength, insulation and light protection.

That means clients are sending thousands of tons of glass to the landfill. It's estimated that just one of Watson Recycling's regional clients was sending an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 tons of laminated glass to the landfill each year. And they found that was true of other companies across the country.

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The leaders at Watson were surprised by the volume going to the landfill. Glass manufacturers have a high failure rate in production, between 10 and 25 percent. That's a lot of laminated glass that's just going into the trash.

"The two materials themselves – plastic and glass – are very recyclable, but nobody was going through the work of figuring out how to separate them," Jeremiah Watson said. "That's where we came in."

The local firm started designing a machine that could separate the glass from the plastic in laminated glass. Three years later, they had a one-of-a-kind machine that successfully turns a pane of laminated glass into its recyclable parts.

Infinite Recycled Technologies was created under the Watson Recycling umbrella to address the new business opportunity.

A sign for Infinite Recycled now stands in front of a 65,000-square-building in Albert Lea, where the prototype machine is being installed and truckloads of laminated glass wait to be processed.

Jeremiah Watson hopes to have the facility up and running within a few months. He expects to staff Infinite Recycled with a team of 15 to 20 employees, with the possibility of adding more. The machine is estimated to be able to process 20,000 to 30,000 tons of glass a year. Meaning, those tons will not end up in a landfill.

Watson Recycling's headquarters is just north of Rochester and it also has an auto recycling facility in Austin. How did the Infinite Recycled Technologies end up in Albert Lea?

"First, we needed to be on a railroad for the business model that we have... To be feasible, we wanted to be on a rail spur. Second, we didn't have room for it at our main site," he said. "Then we found the absolute perfect building in Albert Lea. The city has been incredibly welcoming."

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The complex is large enough that it could accommodate several of the laminated glass processing machines, if the business takes off.

Along with the proprietary machine, Infinite Recycled will explore the possibility of using glass to make new products, like building materials. That's a small, experimental part of the whole project, said Watson.

"It's a good material. We think there is a possibly a real opportunity there," he said.

Infinite Recycling is just the latest evolution of a local company with deep roots in southeastern Minnesota.

The company dates back more than 35 years, when Rodney Watson started handling recycling. His son, Glen Watson, took up the mantle in 1987 and worked with the city of Rochester to collect residential recycling and then focused on high-grade paper.

As the father of 16, Glen Watson then handed the reins of the company over to his children in 2006. 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.

Watson Recycling then purchased an auto business in Austin to sell recovered parts and refurbished vehicles in 2015. They also recently began dealing in auto parts at the Rochester location.

Small Business Administration named Watson Recycling as the top family-owned business in the region in 2017.

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Jeremiah Watson, CEO of Infinite Recycled Technologies, a division of Watson Recycling, stands with laminated glass panes at their new building in Albert Lea. The company has developed a way to recycle laminated glass that otherwise would have been sent to landfills. (Andrew Link / alink@postbulletin.com)

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