a community growing strong

Owens-Illinois is a million bottles strong

From the Streator Times

City Councilman Joe Scarbeary and plant foreman Rick Lenhausen recently led City Manager David Plyman through a tour of the plant to provide a better understanding of the glass-making process.

“Owens was built before the rest of the town was here,” Plyman said, noting how the city blossomed around the factory. “There’s a pattern of houses, bars and little stores that pop up around these places. People build houses near their workplace and then they walk to work. Streator wouldn’t be here without that.”

And just three years ago, Owens wasn’t doing as well as it is now. The manufacturer had 160 employees after once employing thousands, but after an upswing, it's back up to 310 workers.

Plant Manager Ron Warnecky said every bottle the factory produces until 2024 is already sold. 

Owens used to be well known as the maker of Miller-Coors brand beer bottles but the manufacturer hasn't made beer bottles in eight years. Instead, the factory makes bottles for Jack Daniels, Cruze Rum, Skinny Girl Wine, Calico Jack, Pinnacle Vodka, Duplin, Smirnoff Ice, Bulleit Bourbon and Wild Turkey, among many others. 

Owens may not employ as many people as it did during its heyday, but it produces more bottles now than ever before, Warnecky said. The process is what has changed. Instead of dying the glass in five to six days, it takes approximately five hours.

“Liquor demands a higher quality bottle,” Warnecky said. “How does the bottle look? What’s the quality? A customer would reject the whole pallet just for one bad bottle.”

Many of the liquor bottles produced at Owens require being dyed and many bourbon or whiskey bottles are dyed a slightly darker brown color that can still give the illusion of being clear. This is done to enhance the color of the liquor to make it look more appealing. 

Upon entering two swinging doors on the south side of the factory, millions of bottles line the ceiling, traveling on a conveyor belt toward an area where they’re placed on pallets, sometimes boxed and sometimes not. 

The west side of the factory is where the glass is made and the furnaces burn at 2,500 degrees. The furnaces used to create the glass are massive — the size of rooms. 

The glass created inside the furnaces is then shot down a machine into a mold, where it is cooled then moved along around a conveyor belt, where it changes from its molten hot orange color to a clearer color with an occasionally green tint. These furnaces run 24/7. 

The glass then moves through the inspection process — it takes between 20 and 27 people per shift to run the whole process.

“What’s good about glass is it’s 100% recyclable,” Warnecky said. “Is it an art or a science? It’s both. No two bottles will ever be identical but we can get close.”

Warnecky said what’s amazing about the Streator plant is there’s a lot of heritage among employees; they have multiple people working there whose grandparents and parents spent their careers there as well.