7. Guardians of the Shattered-Glass Dream

Can the Strip’s used bottles pave the way to a greener Las Vegas?

Scott McCombs grew up in Spokane, Wash., where he helped out in his father’s construction company and learned the business, as he says, “from the dirt up.” By the time he was 13, he was driving a dump truck on jobs. He already had a way of getting ahead of himself and doing just fine.

In 1979, when he was 18 and his high-school sweetheart, Cindy, was 16, they decided to get married. The judge who at last agreed to unite them in by-all-appearances-premature matrimony cried. “I can see that you love each other,” he said. “But this is never going to work.” Surely this good man was speaking with both compassion and logic. But then again, that was 32 years ago, and here are Scott and Cindy with three children and five grandchildren and a 20-year-old business in which they’ve worked together since Day One. Oh, and by the way, they believed in each other enough to build, for no discernible economic reason, a castle out of fly ash and crushed glass in the middle of a Henderson industrial park.

In the mid-2000s, at a time when he could have been calmly multiplying the rewards of Realm of Design, the architectural accents firm he and Cindy had started in 1991, Scott became fascinated with the possibility that fly ash left over from burnt coal could be mixed with recycled glass to create a new kind of concrete. It would be a concrete that would use virtually no virgin materials, necessitate no environmentally damaging quarrying, and keep a whole bunch of ash and glass out of landfills.

He dove into technical papers and old conference proceedings; he learned that a quiet conversation had been brewing in engineering and academic circles about how to create a more sustainable concrete. The more he learned, the more it seemed that his wild vision was plausible. (At the 2010 American Society of Civil Engineers international conference in Cairo, scholars called for the use of fly ash and other industrial by-products to reduce dependency on quarried Portland cement—that is, for the creation of what they called “green concrete.”)

McCombs reached backward for answers as well: He read about how the ancient Romans had mixed volcanic ash and lime when they built the Colosseum in 100 A.D., and he went to Rome to see the joint for himself.

Then he disappeared into his Henderson lair and got down to devising a way to mix the stuff with the Strip’s used bottles. “He became a mad scientist,” Cindy says. “People would stop by just to see what he was up to.”

McCombs spent $50,000 on a small industrial glass crusher so that he could grind old bottles into fine sand—which is, after all, what they started out as. He then mixed the crushed glass with ash and added thin strands of fiberglass to strengthen the mix. The product he created in 2009 is called Green Stone. It is quite literally made out of trash.

McCombs would have liked to start using Green Stone for his clients—they include Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, Monte Carlo, the Forum Shops at Caesars and plenty of well-heeled private homeowners—but he knew Las Vegans might not be quite ready to buy stone accents made from ash and beer bottles. “It’s hard to sell recycled products,” he says. “People want you to pay them to take it, or they want it for free, or they think it’s dirty.”

Most of all, in the case of Green Stone, they didn’t quite believe it was possible. So McCombs did what any smart businessman looking for customers would do and built the aforementioned “castle”—a 30,000-square-foot recycled-material baroque pavilion—at his own expense, just to show folks he could. Scott and Cindy named it the Morrow Royal Pavilion (the “Morrow” stands for “tomorrow”), but it’s an almost exact replica of England’s 17th-century Swarkestone Hall. The building is made from 290,000 pounds of recycled glass—all from Strip hotels—and 210,000 pounds of recycled-ash pozzolan cement. It saved more than 400,000 cubic yards of landfill space.

At a recent gathering at the pavilion, a fellow approached McCombs, pointing out that sand costs less than glass, and that therefore it was entirely illogical to spend time turning glass back into sand. “Why are you doing this?” the man said. “You’ll never be a success in business.” Setting aside the fact that McCombs already was a successful businessman (in the early 1990s he was a local pioneer in lightweight polyurethane decorative construction), the comment hit a sore spot. “I felt like telling him, ‘Well, I’m not gonna stop. I’ll waste my money if I want to.’” But as it turned out, McCombs didn’t have to say anything: “This lady looked at the guy and just blew up: You stupid fucker! Don’t you get it? He’s trying to make a difference.”

And the difference, if McCombs has his way, would be considerable: He says that if Green Stone were to catch on for Las Vegas tract-home driveways alone, he could easily go through the Strip’s estimated 36 million annual pounds of glass waste and still need more. Instead the excess glass, once sorted by Evergreen Recycling on the hotel docks, must be trucked to California, leaving its carbon footprint in the air.

Today, the Morrow Pavilion is filled with the tools of the McCombs trade (industrial cutting equipment, polyurethane molds he sculpts himself) and of McCombs leisure (a retrofitted 1967 Shelby Mustang, ATVs, a CrossFit gym). Ultimately, the family would like to make the space available to local artisans. For now, though, McCombs wants people to come visit and spread the word of a low-impact alternative to traditional cement. Among the folks he’d like to entertain are the Rolling Stones, who appeared in front of Swarkestone Hall on the cover of their greatest hits album, Hot Rocks 1964-1971. Cindy has mounted a lively Facebook campaign to lure the Stones. It’s part lark, part savvy PR.

And if they come, it will be clear that it was also part mad genius.

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