ITHACA, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — The question of how to reuse wine bottles has been a long-standing sustainability problem in the New York State wine industry, until now.

A solution to the problem may have been found thanks to young and bright Cornell students at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, who are investigating the potential for a startup wine bottle washing and reuse facility.

According to Cornell, three student teams have interviewed redemption centers, wine consumers, winery owners and restaurants to look for roadblocks and partnership opportunities, approaching the challenge with “design thinking,” following specific customer discovery strategies.

Kerwin Xu, a soon-to-be 2024 graduate and a student at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in Visiting Professor Brad Treat’s Grand Challenges class, met with his classmates, Peter Saltonstall, co-owner of Treleaven Wines in Lansing, New York, who’s the primary client for the project.

“Our main goal is to figure out the feasibility – for Treleaven Wines and all New York state wineries – to implement infrastructure for wine bottle washing, including procedures, finances and operations,” said Xu.

The students got a close-up look at grape-crushing equipment, wine casks, the bottling line and storage space at Treleaven. According to Cornell, Treleaven Wines sells approximately 150,000 bottles annually; New York state wineries overall produce roughly 32.5 million gallons of wine.

“Seeing all of the production processes on site was very exciting,” said Xu. “I was shocked by how the balance of space used for different production processes was drastically different from what I thought.”

After their experience at Treleaven, the student’s goal was to create ideas and pitch them to Saltonstall and several other winery owners as part of Cornell’s multiyear Grand Challenges curriculum, which aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

“This is learning by doing,” said Treat. “The answers are not available on Google. There’s no cheat sheet. No AI engine can solve this challenge, and the potential outcomes are many.”

Worldwide, glass bottles contribute enormously to climate change and in New York State, there is no redemption program for wine bottles in New York State as recycling is up to the individual.

“Even when bottles are recycled, glass must be crushed, melted and manufactured into a new product, which incurs environmental costs,” stated Cornell.

However, proposed New York Legislation, Senate Bill S4246A, is trying to change that, making it a requirement, if adopted, to “require companies selling, offering for sale, or distributing packaging materials and products to register with a packaging reduction organization to develop a packaging reduction and recycling plan.”

According to Cornell, Saltonstall says legislation isn’t the only problem, “We all need to do better [for the environment]. I thought, ‘Of all the bottles we generate, can they be reused?’”

Xu agreed and stated that this issue may be a project that’s beyond legislation but is hopeful for the future and possibly scaling a solution.

“It feels very entrepreneurial. We’re working with a huge problem, and we’re trying to scale this solution. Grand Challenges prepare us to face an actual client and then think about the implications on the world,” said Xu.

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