How Recycling Works (or Doesn’t Work) in Chattanooga, TN: Part 2: Glass

Clear glass bin at one of the recycling centers in Chattanooga. Photo by me.
Clear glass bin at one of the recycling centers in Chattanooga. Photo by me.

In a recent post, I filled you in on the recent history of glass recycling problems in Chattanooga. One of my concerned readers contacted me, asking me to confirm what I had written: that the glass we bring to the recycling centers in Chattanooga may not be getting recycled. I have since been able to confirm that glass brought to the recycling centers in Chattanooga IS getting recycled.

How did I find out?

The answer was not obtained through the City of Chattanooga’s Recycling Department, nor WestRock, our Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). No one from the City even referred me to the right person or company. I was able to speak to the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Strategic Materials, Laura Hennemann, last week, and she confirmed that glass from Chattanooga’s recycling centers goes directly to their Atlanta facility and is recycled.

Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition

Strategic Materials is the largest glass recycling company in North America, and they have nearly 50 facilities nationwide. Three of those are in Georgia. I got in touch with Hennemann by contacting the Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC), of which Strategic Materials is a member. The GRC, formed in 2016, “brings together a diverse membership of companies and organizations to make glass recycling work: glass manufacturers, haulers, processors, materials recovery facilities, capital markets, end markets and brands that use glass to showcase their products.” They encourage MRFs to become members. WestRock is not a listed member.

Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition hope to educate everyone on glass recycling because glass is 100% recyclable. They want to educate residents and consumers, MRFs, local governments and municipalities, and solid waste haulers. They helped me so that I can help others understand the glass recycling process.

The Glass Recycling Coalition’s 2018 survey concluded that 93% of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass, so we know it’s important to people. I don’t believe people know about the issues in recent years with glass recycling in Chattanooga. I sure didn’t until I began researching it!

Green glass bottles, photo by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay
Green glass bottles, photo by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

Recycling is extremely complex

In general, recycling beyond the blue curbside bin is extremely complicated. It has taken me weeks to understand, and I still don’t know all of it. I also cannot summarize all of the information in one single post. Today I’ll explain our local system and how glass is processed here.

In a future post, I’ll cover how glass recycling in general works. (UPDATE: Read Part 1 and Part 2 on glass recycling).

How recycling works in Chattanooga

The Public Works Department in the City of Chattanooga manages garbage and recycling curbside collection through the Solid Waste and Recycling Division. City employees operate the equipment and run the daily routes, and the City of Chattanooga owns and maintains the trucks.

We have what is termed single-stream recycling for curbside pick-up in Chattanooga. Single-stream recycling means that all recycling is mixed together in the 96-gallon blue bins, and those bins are collected by trucks who deliver the materials to our MRF, WestRock. The primary purpose of MRFs is to sort materials. WestRock takes the recycling materials, sorts them, and sells sends the materials on to the facility that purchases those materials.

Box produced by WestRock, that someone shipped to me from a recent purchase. Photo by me.
Box produced by WestRock, that someone shipped to me from a recent purchase. Photo by me.

WestRock is the primary MRF for much of the Southeast U.S. They are a paper recycling company first, so paper and cardboard recovery are their number one motivation when it comes to materials recovery.

I was able to confirm through the Public Works Department that the sorting from curbside used to be separated by Orange Grove, but now sorting from curbside is handled solely by WestRock. Orange Grove is still involved with the recycling centers, in that it staffs the City of Chattanooga’s five recycling centers as well as the three refuse centers.

As mentioned above, the glass that residents take to the five recycling centers in Chattanooga does get recycled! It is directly recycled by Strategic Materials in Atlanta. While residents sort glass by color at the recycling centers in Chattanooga, Strategic Materials said that this isn’t necessary because they can accept mixed color bottle glass. They have an optical sorter in their Atlanta facility, which sorts the glass by color. Chattanooga has not changed their signage or policy yet, so the separate bins at the centers remain.

Glass recycling bins at one of the Chattanooga recycling centers. Photo by me.
Glass recycling bins at one of the Chattanooga recycling centers. Photo by me.

Glass causes problems without the right sorting equipment

WestRock, as do many MRFs, assert that they do not have the ability to sort the glass broken before it reaches their facility, citing damage to their conveyor belts and machinery. The glass can also contaminate the rest of the recycling materials at the MRFs’ facilities. There are several types of contamination, but in this case, it refers to the small glass pieces mixing in with the rest of the materials and they are difficult to separate. Even worse, because of the separation issue, entire bins of recyclables can’t be sold and then all the recycling gets landfilled!
That’s why residents in Chattanooga are no longer able to place glass in the curbside bins. If you still are, please stop, as it’s a wasted effort because it’s going to the landfill and likely causing a bunch of recyclables to go in the landfill as well. Keep in mind that curbside glass from the last 4 years or so has already been landfilled. So rinse your glass, save it all in a box, and run it to the recycling center every couple of weeks.

Are there solutions for the MRFs?

There are some potential solutions to this problem. First, there is special machinery that can sort the glass pieces from single-stream recycling systems, but it is a major capital investment for the MRF. So they often landfill the glass instead.
Another solution is to collect glass separately, curbside. Chattanooga surveyed almost 4,000 residents about glass. This is a low number of respondents considering there are about 71,000 households in Chattanooga. But most said they were willing to use a separate curbside bin for glass, but they were not willing to pay an extra fee for it. (I did participate in this survey, and yes, I did respond that I would pay the extra fee. Clearly, I’m in the minority on this one.) Unfortunately, the survey also indicated that over half of the respondents were not willing to haul their glass to the recycling centers. That’s sad because that means that a lot of glass is going to the landfill anyway!
Side note: many articles, including the one that revealed the Chattanooga glass survey results, indicate that the market for glass is extremely low. Laura Hennemann at Strategic Materials said that this just isn’t the case. There is a huge market for glass. I’ll explain more about that in my upcoming post on how glass recycling works generally.
I don’t know to what extent these ideas have been explored locally. I have been told that the Solid Waste Division in Chattanooga follows what the MRF prefers and may have contractual obligations.

Despite the issues, keep trying

Glass is 100% recyclable, so don’t give up.

Glass is still a better option for waste. In a worst-case scenario, I’d rather have glass in landfills (and sometimes oceans) instead of plastic. Why? Because plastic is toxic and leaches poison that gets into water and marine life. Plastic releases chemicals known to cause cancer or other health problems. Glass does not contain these chemicals and is less harmful. So I’m going to keep purchasing products in glass over plastic every time. Especially since I don’t want chemicals from those plastics in my family’s food.

I’ll also keep taking my glass to the recycling center because I am able and willing to take the time. So I’m asking you to do the same – bring your glass to one of the five recycling centers. If you can’t do it, maybe a friend can drop yours off when they take theirs. For example, I take my in-law’s glass for them every few weeks. I’m happy to do it. What about starting a little co-op of glass recycling in your neighborhood, or at work? Everyone takes a turn, and the glass gets recycled.

One of several bins of glass I brought to recycle, as I collect from two households. Photo by me.
One of several bins of glass I brought to recycle, as I collect from two households. Photo by me.

Do you have questions or comments or ideas? Please share with me by leaving a comment below!

Thank you for reading. And please recycle your glass!

4 Replies to “How Recycling Works (or Doesn’t Work) in Chattanooga, TN: Part 2: Glass”

  1. Thank you for this information! It will really help me make better and more informed choices for my purchases and my recycling habits. I’ve always hated paying so much for recycling and wondering how much good it really does, while not even being able to toss my glass in! This has changed my thought process and I will start taking my own glass to recycle, now.

    1. Hi Misty! Glass is so recyclable and can be reused over and over again, unlike plastic. I’m really glad this post helped you, that’s the whole reason I’m writing! Thank you for your comment and let me know if you have any questions.

    1. Thank you for the info on glass recycling! I too, take glass for 2 families to the recycle center and am concerned and interested in knowing more about the whole process.

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