How Glass Recycling Can and Should Work: Part 2

Pretty colored glass bottles, rainbow sequence. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

In Part 1 of this post, I explained how glass recycling works in general. In this second installment, I’m going to explain some of the problems, controversies, and solutions.

So now you know that glass is 100% recyclable! And besides recycling, it has many other potential uses.

If you read my previous post, you also know that glass from curbside pick-up in Chattanooga was not being recycled for about 4 years. This was happening for several reasons according to WestRock, the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for Chattanooga and much of the Southeast. At present in Chattanooga, glass can only be recycled at the local centers, as it is no longer accepted in curbside recycling.

But it’s not just a problem in Chattanooga. It’s happening all over the place. There are many claims for not recycling glass.

“Glass [has a] 73 percent recycling rate in the European Union, 34 percent in the United States.” -Beth Porter, author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine

Exploring the realities of glass recycling

There is a huge market for glass

According to MSW Management Weekly, cullet has declined in prices in most parts of the country. They cited that contamination leads to increased processing costs thus lowering the value of glass. They wrote that many communities are either contemplating or are removing glass collection from their recycling programs because glass recycling is expensive and labor-intensive.

The assertion that there is not much of a market for glass is just plain wrong. If you’ll recall, recycling has to be profitable for it to happen. Many MRF’s are claiming that there is no market for glass, but Laura Hennemann, Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Strategic Materials, indicated that they need more glass to meet end-market demand in their Atlanta facility. There is more demand for glass than there is supply! Strategic Materials is the largest glass recycling company in North America. There are many end markets for glass, and you can read more about those in Part 1.

Clear glass bottles. Photo by ThreeMilesPerHour on Pixabay.
Clear glass bottles. Photo by ThreeMilesPerHour on Pixabay.

Recycling contamination

In single-stream recycling systems, meaning where all materials go into one bin for curbside pick-up, all recyclables contaminate each other because they’re all mixed together. Broken glass gets mixed in with all the other materials, and that makes it difficult and costly to sort because the machinery to separate at that level is a serious capital investment for the MRF. If the machinery to separate is cost-prohibitive, the materials get landfilled.

Curt Bucey, an executive vice president at Strategic Materials Inc., quoted in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, said “that when used glass arrived at its plants 20 years ago, it was 98% glass and 2% other castoffs, such as paper labels and bottle caps. These days, some truckloads can include up to 50% garbage.” Even so, the technology for separating the materials is available!

Garbage and non-glass (ceramics, metal, plastics) mixed in with glass can somewhat affect the value of glass, but the value can be maximized by implementing best practices. The Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC) offers lots of information and resources on those.

You do not have to clean and remove labels from your glass

Glass does not have to be cleaned and the labels do not have to be removed. Glass recyclers, including Strategic Materials, have machinery that manages those as part of their regular processing. They prefer people to rinse their glass, of course, but it will get recycled either way. Personally, I rinse my recyclables because I don’t want them to attract bugs or start stinking until collection or drop off day.

Glass containers with labels and lids. Photo by Meineresterampe on Pixabay.
Glass containers with labels and lids. Photo by Meineresterampe on Pixabay.

Equipment damage

Another reason many MRF’s assert that they cannot sort the glass before it reaches their facility because the glass causes damage to their conveyor belts and machinery.

Glass use has decreased but only slightly

Many manufacturers of processed foods have greatly increased their output of plastic packaging in the last 25 years. Plastic is cheaper to produce and cheaper to ship. Additionally, there is a reduced chance of product loss from glass breakage. Many retailers and consumers prefer plastic for similar reasons. However, informed consumers know that there are certainly risks to our environment and health from using plastic containers. We know that there is still a high demand for recycled glass. Which seems to indicate that even if usage has gone down, it’s likely only a slight decrease.

Broken glass is accepted

Broken glass is accepted by glass recycling companies (as opposed to MRFs), as it gets broken down into cullet anyway. Strategic Materials even said they prefer broken glass because you can fit more of it into a container.

Cullet, or broken down glass. Photo by Quinn Kampschroer on Pixabay.
Cullet, or broken down glass. Photo by Quinn Kampschroer on Pixabay.

Mixed colors are also accepted

Mixed colored glass is ok too! Strategic Materials has an optical sorter to take care of the sorting for them. Very cool technology!

China’s SWORD policy does not affect glass

In 2017, China passed the National Sword policy banning plastic waste from being imported from the West, starting in January 2018. Laura Hennemann of Strategic Materials asserts that glass is produced and recycled domestically, so this policy does not affect glass recycling in the U.S. and Canada.

Conflicts of Interest

When recycling doesn’t make money, it gets transported to landfills, and then companies make money from landfilling the materials instead. In a recent New York Times article entitled “The Conflict of Interest That Is Killing Recycling,” the author interviewed Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America. She noted that “Some of the biggest and most dominant recycling companies in the U.S. are owned by landfill companies. Therefore, when recycling doesn’t work well, the landfill side of their businesses becomes more profitable.”

The purpose of a MRF is to sort materials and divert them accordingly, but they are also a business which must generate income. If a MRF owns landfills, and if landfills generate more income than recycling, then the recycling system breaks down. Additionally, landfill fees also increased between 2016 and 2018, making landfills slightly more profitable.

Public Relations affect recycling

I mentioned in my last post that I believed that some communities, including Chattanooga, may be collecting glass just to appear to be a greener city. Ninety-three percent of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass, according to the Glass Recycling Coalition. MSW Management Weekly wrote that glass collection often continues even if it is not getting recycled. “In many cases, however, the public relations benefits and avoided tipping fees are felt to outweigh the collection and processing costs.”

A Domino Effect

This statement from an article at  waste360.com sums up what happened to glass recycling in recent years: “Early in 2015, the industry’s largest players announced that glass should and would be eliminated from single-stream programs.” Many MRFs “felt permission to follow suit without justification or apologies.”

Many MRF’s demanded glass to be removed from single-stream (curbside pick-up) and often the municipalities comply. Strategic Materials says most municipalities trust their MRF, and believe there is no market for glass if that is what the MRF claims. Laura Hennemann at Strategic Materials suggests that municipalities should ask questions or seek out solutions together, rather than just stop recycling glass.

What is happening within other municipalities in the Southeast U.S.?

The Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) did a study of where glass from MRFs ends up. They found that 54% does go to glass processors. However, over 38% goes to landfills either as cover, fill, or trash.

In April 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the end of glass recycling in many places across the country. “Some cities…consider it more cost-effective to have residents throw glass bottles in the trash than to recycle them.”

The Atlanta area

In June 2016, Canton, Georgia announced that their garbage and recycling collection company, Waste Management, would end acceptance of glass bottles curbside on July 1. The company indicated that the MRF, also WestRock, would no longer accept glass bottles in the metro Atlanta area. Waste Management “halted its collection of glass in Kennesaw, Marietta, Smyrna and parts of Gwinnett County.” Gainesville, Georgia was affected as well.

A City of Marietta spokesperson said MRFS are not able to make a profit recycling glass and it contaminates other recyclable materials. She said there was no market for mixed glass within a single-stream recycling system. She also remarked that the glass was damaging equipment at the MRF. City of Chattanooga officials cited the same reasons.

Atlanta, Georgia cityscape. Photo by Paul Brennan on Pixabay.
Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Paul Brennan on Pixabay.

Knoxville

In December 2016, Knoxville, Tennessee announced that Waste Connections would stop accepting glass curbside through its Eastern Tennessee region by January 1, 2017. The Waste Connections municipal marketing manager wrote that the glass market has become limited. He said the change would preserve the overall integrity of their recycling program. He also indicated that broken glass damaged WestRock’s equipment.

Louisville

A report from October 2018 indicated that in Louisville, Kentucky, 82 percent of all of the residential waste ended up in a landfill despite recycling efforts. Louisville also uses WestRock as an MRF.

Misconceptions

We now know that most of those cited reasons are misconceptions and are inaccurate!

Atlanta is starting a new bid process in 2019. Perhaps with a new MRF, they’ll be able to recycle glass curbside again!

In July 2016, the City of Decatur began charging residents $25 for a separate recycling bin and now have a 97% participation rate. City officials attribute that to a comprehensive education campaign.

Solutions

Develop solutions collaboratively

Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition want to work with MRFs to develop solutions to improve glass recycling. They seek to improve the quality, reduce landfill costs and tipping fees, and increase efficiency. As they state, glass does not belong in a landfill. They had a webinar called “Breakthrough Glass Recycling Opportunities” that you can watch on youtube, and it features many ideas and innovations related to glass recycling.

MRFs need to invest in and upgrade their facilities

The Closed Loop Fund is a finance project which invests in improving recycling infrastructure and sustainable manufacturing technologies that advance the circular economy.

Single-stream recycling needs to be rethought

The problems with glass recycling do not lie with consumers, who are eager to recycle glass. Glass manufacturers, who prefer recycled glass, want to be part of the solution. The problem is with single-stream recycling.

Single-stream recycling is a very flawed system. So I believe if you have the ability to participate in a dual-stream recycling system you should. That’s where you separate materials at the recycling center or store. It improves recycling overall!

Keep using glass!

Remember, glass is ocean-friendly, unlike plastics. In general, glass use has decreased for bottled beverages, also the main recycled glass item today. This is because beverages are also readily available in plastic and aluminum. We, as consumers, have the ability to demand more glass through our purchases. For example, I don’t buy many food or beverage products in plastic because of the possible leaching of toxic contaminants. You can do the same!

I hope this two-part series has helped you better understand glass recycling’s complexities. Do you have questions or ideas? Leave me a comment below. Thanks for reading!

2 Replies to “How Glass Recycling Can and Should Work: Part 2”

    1. Great question! A tipping fee is a fee paid for disposal of waste at a landfill.This fee is often based on the weight of the waste per ton.

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