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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Green Glass, Inc.: Thinking Outside the Bottle

Many people would claim that they've found inspiration in a good bottle of wine. For Sean Penrith and Philip Tetley, the founders of Green Glass, Inc., inspiration sprung not so much from a bottle's contents, but from the bottle itself:
Late one night [in 1992] while clearing the table after a dinner party, Sean's wife, Mara, mentioned that it was a shame there was no further use for the attractive empty wine bottles they were about to toss in the refuse bin. As soon as she said it, inspiration struck…turn the bottle upside down…remove the base, twist the neck closed…and voila…a drinking glass. And with the striking colors and shapes of many glass bottles, the result is unique stemware that combines environmental consciousness with exquisite taste. (link)
Young, idealistic, and basically broke, Penrith, an electrical engineer, and Tetley, a biologist and conservationist, recognized an opportunity in Mara's observation. Each invested $100 and began working on a process to convert wine bottles into glassware in a garage in their native South Africa. After numerous frustrations and many broken bottles, the pair successfully created machinery to automate the process. Now able to produce a glass every ten seconds (as opposed to hand-processing twelve bottles a day), the company moved into a South African factory. Word spread quickly of the young companies' unique products, and within two years, Green Glass received the "Business of the Year" award and was recognized as one of the four best new businesses in South Africa. Since then, the company has opened a US-based production facility in Schofield, Wisconsin, and has the capacity to produce 225,000 glasses a month. In thirteen years, Mara's brainstorm has blossomed into a global enterprise recognized for its innovation, style and environmental responsibility.

Green Glass' large-scale production has become absolutely necessary, as the demand for it's products has outstripped its supply from the company's earliest days. Penrith and Tetley, who began selling Green Glass products on the weekends in Johannesburg, now claim an impressive list of corporate clients, including Walt Disney, BMW, Perrier, Hyatt Hotels, Beringer Wines and Benzinger Family Winery. Individuals who set their tables with Green Glass products include King Juan Carlos of Spain, "lifestyle authority" and author Danny Seo, and actresses Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair.

While the number of A-list clients is impressive, Green Glass' wide range of tableware and home accessories will fit most budgets, and provide fodder for conversation. Dinner guests may experience "déjà vu" when drinking from wine and water glasses, as Green Glass recycles bottles from wineries in the United States, Canada and Europe. Other reclaimed materials often find their way into products: two vases, for instance, combine recycled glass with holders fashioned from reclaimed bed springs. One of my favorite items is the Cactus Clear tumbler, made from the bottles of Mexico's Sol beer.

These items, along with the many others that Green Glass produces, should inspire even the hippest environmentalists. While Penrith is rightfully proud of his company's acceptance in the most stylish circles, he bristles at the suggestion that environmental consciousness itself is merely a part of the fashion statement made by "green" lifestyle products. "I believe that being 'green' is not just fashionable - it's essential. Our customers want to live 'the good life," but I equate that with an overall high quality of life. Our environment and sustainable engagement with it are just as much a part of 'the good life' as the things we purchase and enjoy."

There's no doubt that a customer who shares Penrith's view of living well can purchase and enjoy his company's products and know that Green Glass itself is sustainably engaged with the environment. Green Glass gives its customer more than high-quality, attractive glassware - it also creates a model for living well while treading lightly.

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg
Guest Columnist -- Greener Magazine

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