Opening up a jar of salsa, drinking a bottled Starbucks Frappuccino, enjoying a Rolling Rock at the end of the day … doing any of these things pretty much guarantees that you’ve used a glass container that’s been manufactured right here in Pennsylvania by the Owens-Illinois company — or O-I Glass, as it’s more commonly referred (including on the New York Stock Exchange).
The origins of O-I’s presence in Pennsylvania date back to 1988, when the company merged with Brockway Glass Container in the small western PA town of Brockway. Fast forward to today, and the global corporation’s PA presence includes a second location — the Crenshaw plant that’s “just a stone’s throw away” from the Brockway plant, according to Bob Hippert, O-I’s sustainability strategy leader — manufacturing. It’s at both of these facilities that food jars and alcoholic beverage containers are produced — including those beautiful and distinctive green Rolling Rock bottles.
The origins of O-I date much farther back then the company’s arrival in Pennsylvania, in 1903 when the Owens bottle making company merged with a company out of Alton, IL (hence the ‘Illinois’ part of the name). While the scope of O-I’s history includes manufacturing various products, glass has always been their specialty and in the mid-2000’s they got back to their roots — focusing on the production of glass containers. In 2021, O-I now proudly holds the title of the world’s largest food and beverage glass manufacturing company.
Helping to cement O-I’s hard-earned status in the glass production world are its employees — many of whom are specially trained in the craft of glass making and/or the repair and maintenance of the machinery that’s needed to make glass bottles. At the Brockway plant, there are 118 employees; the nearby Crenshaw plant employs 321; and there are around 30 at the “machine shop” with employees who are specifically trained to install, repair and maintain the machines that are specific to the glass-making process.
Glass Making Magicians
An intriguing O-I video — ‘Fire and Sand’ — details how the amazing glass manufacturing process takes place. “It’s like watching a concert,” Jim Nordmeyer, O-I’s vice president of global sustainability, says. “Everything’s moving at the right place at the right time — the bottles fall into a line because that’s where the specific space in the line is. It’s an orchestration of all of these movements.”
To keep everything running quite literally like a well-oiled machine, the employees boast mechanical and electrical skill sets needed to keep the machines in sync. At the Brockway plant, they’re able to produce up to 500 bottles a minute, 365 days a year.
“Glass is always flowing at the glass container facility,” Nordmeyer says, “and [because of this] the furnaces do have a finite lifetime [about 15 years]. There are even repairs that we need to do while the furnace isn’t operating but the glass is still moving — these machines need to be shut down, cooled, demolished and rebuilt over the course of about 60 days.”
Interestingly, the bottles made in Pennsylvania often contain products that are sold here, too; along with other surrounding states up and down the Atlantic seaboard and into the Midwest. Along with the aforementioned beer bottles, the Brockway plant also makes glass bottles that hold spring water and carbonated soft drinks. Meanwhile, the nearby Crenshaw facility makes clear jars that range the entire product line from salsa and spaghetti sauce jars to small spirits containers.
“It’s an interesting balance of customers that we ship to, and we try to ship as locally as possible,” Hippert says. “If you look at our footprint, we try to minimize our logistics by servicing the food markets in the Northeast. And O-I has another facility in Auburn, New York — that facility and the Crenshaw facility support what’s going on in the Northeast and Midwest.”
You can find O-I’s presence on store shelves just about everywhere in the Commonwealth. Every one of the containers the company makes showcases their logo — if you know where on the product to look.
A Workforce that Works
It’s not just in machine maintenance where O-I’s employees shine. Hippert explains that at their facilities, employees are encouraged to shadow their co-workers and rotate through the facility. “This allows them to grow skills, and as vacancies occur, people are moved into areas where they’ve spent some time. It’s a great model that’s worked for us and we’re looking to deploy it across other facilities. If you look at how we operate and talk to the employees — whether it’s someone on the production floor or operating the machines — they’ll say how they know what they do makes a difference,” he says.
“There are a lot of skilled trades workers who work on the machines and go through an apprenticeship program,” Nordmeyer adds. “They come in with some of the skills they’ll need — such as having taken some machining type courses or mechanical repair courses. And they’ll come to O-I and become very proficient in what we do and what we use. What’s great about our workforce is that they’re very reliable and very skilled — on everything from glass making to machine repair or repairing the molds we’re using. It’s the perfect place to be with the workforce we have.”
Leading in Sustainability
An industry as energy-intensive as glass making certainly has their work cut out for them in terms of following and meeting the latest regulatory standards. But Nordmeyer is proud of the efforts O-I makes each day to ensure that they’re abiding by and even surpassing those standards. “All of the facilities that O-I operates in North America are fitted with the best available control technology to minimize emissions and comply with the federal [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] standards, and as federal regulations change we adapt to maintain compliance.”
“At our Crenshaw plant, we recently established additional abatement controls to reduce NOX emissions,” Hippert adds. “And we recently rebuilt our Brockway facility to ensure compliance. We must monitor what comes out of the facility’s stacks — it’s important from an operations standpoint.”
Making glass helps make O-I’s vision of being the most sustainable maker of the world’s most sustainable packaging material more achievable. It’s a product that can be re-used, re-purposed and re-filled in every viable market worldwide. “Our priority is to be the most sustainable maker of this product, and to be a good steward of our communities, our environment and our stakeholders,” Nordmeyer stresses. “We believe in and love our product, but the point is being the sustainable maker — having activities that reduce use of water in our process in areas where water is a concern; working to lower the emissions in our facilities; we’re also very much in tune with our CO2 emissions that are attributed to climate change; and we are on a 10 year path to reduce those globally by 25 percent in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement and science-based targets. For us, it’s all getting back to achieving balance across the ecosystem — knowing that we need to engage with legislators and the broader community to make the world a better place.”
In terms of what we all collectively can to do make the world better, Nordmeyer has a simple and effective solution — recycle your glass! “It’s staying right here in Pennsylvania and what’s being recycled is being put right back into the economy,” he says. “Recycling glass creates jobs, ensures the glass remains in the circular economy (it goes from the recycling bin to back on the shelf — usually as another container — within 30 days); it reduces the need for mining new raw materials, and reduces both our carbon footprint and damage to the environment,” he says. And take it from O-I — the company recycles close to 100,000 tons of glass a year at its two facilities.
Powering Through the Pandemic
While their industry and product might stand apart, O-I’s efforts to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic have been similar to what many industries have experienced. When the virus first emerged, Nordmeyer says that the company found itself trying to figure out what it all meant and how to safely keep their doors open. “We had to lobby hard to be considered an essential business — we were successful because of supplying the food and beverage industry,” he recalls. The company’s supply and demand chain was impacted, as one of their largest consumers — restaurants — wasn’t purchasing as much product due to shut-downs and capacity limits. They also saw a drop — which has since been on the upswing — of the amount of glass being collected for recycling; as well as changing consumption patterns which shifted the types of containers they’re making. But through it all, O-I has maintained its commitment to providing the safest facilities possible for the employees who drive their operations by following state and CDC-issued health guidelines.
“We had to do the best we could to make sure we could continue to operate, and we didn’t want to take the risk of an outbreak,” Nordmeyer explains. And Bob Hippert’s coincidental work trip to Italy just as the pandemic was taking shape in Europe helped the company develop an early and effective response plan for their North American operations, as he was able to see firsthand what their Italian counterparts were doing to reduce the spread. It’s just another way that this important global company is paving the way.