Turning recycled glass into jewelry

KENAI — If a concrete mixer ever dreamed of making something beautiful, Jenna Hansen is giving it a chance to live out that dream.

With the little red machine already half-full of rocks and glass shards, she loaded it with colored bottles and strapped a mesh screen to its mouth with bungee cords. After topping it off with a measure of water taken from Cook Inlet, she locked it into position and turned it on, immediately stepping away from the deafening crunching.

Many of the animals on the farm seemed used to the noise. An enormous Great Pyrenees dog sprawled in the shadow of a nearby truck, and the horses in the corral munched quietly beside the reindeer. Five minutes later, Hansen shut off the mixer and sorted through the remains.

“This one is a little too big,” the 19-year-old said, holding up a chunk of green glass that used to be the bottom of a wine bottle. “That’ll have to go through again.”

She tossed it into a bucket at her feet. The next piece, a blue shard about the size of a quarter, passed the test and landed in a bucket on the table to be tumbled in a bucket full of silt and gravel from Cook Inlet, eventually destined to become a necklace or piece of wall décor.

Hansen and her family run Alaska Sea Glass, a business that sells jewelry and home décor made from recycled glass, out of their Nikiski home. They process the glass and design the jewelry themselves, selling it online all over the country. Megan Hansen, Jenna’s older sister, said they have had customers from as far away as New York, and some interest in Europe as well.

The company is about five years old. Jenna pitched the idea as a Nikiski High School freshman after a trip to Hawaii, where she said she saw and loved the colored sea glass in the beaches and gravel there. After learning how little glass is recycled in the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Alaska in general, she submitted the idea as a business to the annual Caring for the Kenai competition, which she went on to win.

The award money went to purchase the tumbler, she said. At first, the family collected glass from the landfill transfer sites, but now some people bring their glass directly to the family, stocking them with bottles of all kinds. Even fractured beer bottles can turn out a nice, frosted amber color.

“It’s a lot of alcohol bottles,” Megan said with a laugh. “Sometimes when we go to the store, we walk down the alcohol aisle and look at the bottles.”

These days, the business is a joint family effort between Jenna, Megan, their sister Kayleen Hansen and their mother Hara Hansen. Jenna is away most of the year, attending college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming, studying kinesiology with the hopes of becoming a therapist for equestrians. While she’s gone, Megan and Hara collect glass, design necklaces, experiment with styles and manage the online store. Kayleen does some of the writing for the company’s website.

Megan, who became more involved with the business when she returned to Nikiski after living in Fairbanks for a few years, said she educated herself on web design, marketing and photography. Many of the photos on Alaska Sea Glass’s website feature Jenna wearing the necklaces the three have made, with Megan behind the camera.

To Megan, the designing is an art more than a craft.

“It takes some creativity, to be able to design the necklaces,” Megan said. “Crafts come from something that’s already been done.”

Hara said she finds it therapeutic, even if the necklaces don’t always turn out. She held up a tray of “failures,” some of which were wrapped with wire in an attempt to change the way the pendants are hung from the necklaces — that’s something she’s working on, she said.

“You’ll go and you’ll pick your glass that you want to work with, and each piece has a unique character,” Hara said.

Beyond jewelry, she said she sees a future for the glass in decorating homes. Inside the Hansens’ own home, the cement around the fireplace is inlaid with shards of demure blue and green glass, lending it color amid all the sand-colored stone and wood.

Hara said they have not done much on the home improvement side yet, but she hopes it will expand in the future. For now, she is looking into ways to experiment with the glass based on interest. Some colors clearly sell better — blue and red are popular, she said — but white does not tend to sell as well, so she and Megan have been working with a glass etching company in Anchor Point to try some etchings on some of the glass to make it a little distinct from the other pendants they offer. She held up a white pendant etched with the image of whale, the lines filled with a blue coloring to make the lines stand out.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said.

The regular necklaces they design sell for anywhere from $29.95 to $74.95, with an extra charge for custom orders. Though they have relatively low overhead — the glass is donated, they own the cement mixer and the silt and water come free from Cook Inlet — they do incur costs with the electricity, materials and shipping, as well as the time-intensive sorting, beadwork and design it takes.

Jenna said they would like to see the business grow and become self-sustaining, but the basic goal is what it has always been — to keep the environment clean.

“We’re keeping something out of the landfill and making something wearable and beautiful out of it,” Jenna said.

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