How Our Recycling Systems Work

Paper cardboard recycling
Photo by Bas Emmen on Unsplash

“We get out of recycling systems what we put into them.” -Beth Porter1

Recycling is not the answer to all of our waste problems. Simply put, we’ve produced more plastic at this point than we could ever recycle away.

However, recycling can still be a part of the solution to protect ourselves and the planet, because we have to try. Ultimately we are responsible for the items and packaging from items we consume. Recycling, though far from a perfect solution, reduces the number of trees cut down for paper and the number of natural resources we harvest. Additionally, it curbs the production of new plastics and thus the fossil fuels we extract.

Green and white recycling truck on street, using a the lift to dump a residential recycling bin on a street.
Photo by the Brisbane City Council on Flickr, Creative Commons license(CC BY 2.0)

Single-Stream Recycling

“Ultimately, for recycling to become a way of life for consumers and end-users, recycling had to be easy, and it had to save money.”-Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.2

Single-stream simply means mixed materials in one group – one stream of materials. If your recycling goes in one bin and is picked up curbside, then you have single-stream recycling in your area.

The idea for single-stream came about in the 1990s because of two beliefs. First, that the convenience of putting everything in one bin would encourage more residents to participate in recycling. Using EPA statistics, one recycling company noted that single-stream recycling “overhauled the underperforming process, taking our national recycling rate from 10.1% in 1985 to 25.7% in 1995 to nearly 32% in 2005.”3

“Curbside recycling grew by 250 percent from 1988 to 1991…People were making the decision to incorporate sorting recyclable goods into their daily routine, reminiscent of war-era conservation efforts.” -Beth Porter4

The second belief is that single-stream recycling systems reduce collection costs. A single truck can collect more volume with mixed materials which reduces transportation costs. However, while collections costs are lower, the processing costs are much higher because of the sorting and separation, tasks which are performed by a combination of humans and expensive sorting machinery.

About 80% of U.S. communities use a single-stream recycling system. “Unfortunately, few could have predicted how low the ceilings really were, or how one move in global policy could send it all crashing down,” referring to China’s 2018 ban on many types of recycling imports.5 Single-stream is clearly riddled with problems and we must find a better way to handle recycling.

“More than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable materials are disposed [of] annually. Curbside recycling in the U.S. currently recovers only 32% of available recyclables in single-family homes, leaving enormous and immediate  opportunity for growth to support the economy, address climate change, and keep recyclable commodities out of landfills.”6

A bird's eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF).
A bird’s eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). Photo by Urban Greendom on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Material Recovery Facility (MRF)

Recycling collected through single-stream is taken to a Material Recovery Facility, or MRF (pronounced”murf”), and sorted by type of material for them to sell. That is the entire purpose of a MRF: the recycling trucks deposit the collected materials, and the MRF sorts, separates, removes waste from, and bales the recycling together. MRFs are businesses seeking profit; they are not municipally owned and operated.

The physical processing at MRFs varies. But a series of expensive, interconnected machines largely sorts the materials. We produce so much waste that there is no other way to separate it. In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of waste, and we recycled approximately 69 million tons.7 That’s not enough.

Generally, at the MRF, trucks dump the mixed materials onto a large floor, called the tipping floor. A front-end loader drops it into a large bin, called a drum feeder, at the start of the processing line. The materials move through a series of conveyor belts with fans, magnets, and wheels to separate the types of items. Humans remove debris and non-recyclable items at various points to prevent tangling or damage to the machinery. Small items, such as caps and utensils, are not likely to make it through these systems because of their size. In addition, they are difficult to bale because they do not have much surface area. For a video of how MRFs work, see Additional Resources below.

At the end of this process, the MRF bales the recyclables to sell to recyclers and manufacturers. The markets change constantly so one of the biggest challenges is recouping money from the materials. Remember, the MRF is looking to profit just like any other business. Recycling does not happen unless it is profitable.

Worker looking at bales of recycling at a recycling center.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Increased Contamination

Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables, or they may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like a plastic bag, but which is not recyclable. That plastic bag can get tangled in the machinery at the MRF, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables the MRF needs to sell. If the recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled or incinerated rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

“When consumers put non-recyclable items into their recycling bins, those materials take a long and circuitous (and expensive) route to the landfill.” -Jennie Romer8

Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.9 “Because of how the system works, the ‘magic bin’ is actually a disgusting, contaminated soup pot. Shaken, stirred, and dumped into a compactor truck with your neighbors’ random mix, contamination keeps 25% of what we put in our recycling bin from ever being processed at a MRF,” wrote Ryan Deer.10 Reducing contamination is key, but it is difficult within a single-stream recycling system.

“For nearly 30 years, Americans have been honeymooning with a recycling system that seems too good to be true.” -Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.11

Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a blue plastic Finesse shampoo bottle.
Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a plastic shampoo bottle. Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Dual-Stream Recycling

In a dual-stream system, each material type is kept in a separate bag or bin, and trucks have three or more compartments. The materials are already sorted upon arrival at the MRF. This was the common recycling collection system until single-stream became the dominant system by the mid-1990s. It costs more and requires trucks with separate sections. But the higher costs “of having residents sort could very well be offset by the higher-quality materials they’re recovering and able to sell.” Single-stream loses about 25% of collected materials from contaminants versus less than 12% in dual-stream.1213

Essentially, most recycling centers serve as a dual-stream system because residents separate the recycling into different dumpsters, which the recycling company collects directly. This results in lower contamination and higher recovery rates, meaning less of that recycling is landfilled.

“There is significant evidence that the resulting scrap material quality (and hence the revenue) is lower under single-stream collection than it is under a dual stream system or under systems like container deposits, where materials are kept separate.” -The Container Recycling Institute14

Collected PET plastic bottles crushed.
Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash

System-Wide Problems

Although consumers need to do their part, the problems with recycling in the U.S. do not fall solely on the public. In fact, the systems in place are themselves faulty. Packaging and single-use disposable production are out of control, and the market demand is low. The market needs improvement, as the cost for new materials is sometimes lower than recycled materials. Additionally, only between 50-74% of Americans have access to curbside recycling. There are multiple problems. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change. As The Recycling Partnership noted:

“The ultimate fate of recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of stakeholders who must all do something new and different to support a transition to a circular economy. Strong, coordinated action is needed in areas ranging from package design, capital investments, scaled adoption of best management practices, policy interventions, and consumer engagement.15

How To Recycle Better

While recycling systems must be improved and we must find or create demand for recycled materials, we can help improve our own practices. Remember, that just because a product is made with recycled materials, does not necessarily mean it is recyclable. “A 2016 survey showed that 59 percent of the public thinks that ‘most types of items’ are recyclable in their town, perhaps without knowing the local rules,” wrote Beth Porter.16 You can find a list of what is acceptable in your area by going to your municipal website.

Here’s how you can help improve single-stream and dual-stream recycling to keep from contaminating the recycling:

      • Don’t put in plastic bags or films. (Note: Supermarkets often collect bags.)
      • Do not bag your recyclables.
      • Empty and rinse the containers. Food contamination, especially as it rots, reduces the value of the recyclables.
      • Don’t crush plastic recyclables. This is so that the MRF can read the resin codes (plastic #) on the bottom of the containers.
      • Separate the caps and only recycle them if they have a proper resin code that is accepted in your area. Most of the time, you will be throwing these away.
      • Do not recycle candy wrappers, paper cups, receipts, plastic straws and utensils, polystyrene or Styrofoam, shredded paper, complex cartons (milk cartons, broth, soup, etc.), large plastic items (chairs, laundry baskets, etc), electronics, or batteries.
      • Certain types of glass cannot be recycled: window, mirror, crystal, or Pyrex.
      • Do not put in take-out containers, especially foam ones, unless they are plastic #1 or #2 and are clean.
      • Pizza boxes depend on your area, but most of the time the grease on the cardboard contaminates recycling. You can tear off the bottom and recycle the top if it is free of grease and food.
      • Remove shrinkwraps from #1 and #2 bottles.
      • Frozen food boxes are usually not recyclable because they contain a layer of plastic coating (to protect the package from moisture).
      • Flatten cardboard boxes.
      • Other items that you should put in the garbage, and not the recycling, include applesauce/juice packets, milk or broth cartons (or any multi-layer packaging), and paper napkins/towels.

Some of the items listed above are accepted through separate recycling streams. Elizabeth Royte wrote, “A common motto is ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’ but I prefer the alternative ‘When in doubt, go find out’ to build better habits rather than giving up on confusing items.”17 Do your best and teach others how to recycle better as well.

The bottom line is, if we purchase something, we need to take responsibility for disposing of it. If we stop buying so many products in single-use disposable containers, especially plastics, the companies and manufacturers will stop producing them as demand goes down. At the same time, companies must take real initiative and stop producing waste that is not recyclable.

Graphic of a tree with the leaves in the shape of a recycling symbol. Blue sky background.
Image by 政徳 吉田 from Pixabay

Going Forward

“If all of the 37.4 million tons of single-family recyclables were put back to productive use instead of lost to disposal, it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil, and achieve the  equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways.”18

We have the opportunity to make a real difference by better handling our waste. While recycling is not the answer to our waste problems, it is still very important. We need a coordinated effort to reduce waste, to increase demand and markets for recycling, and to be better stewards of the waste we do create. The Recycling Partnership lists these strategies in order to overhaul and improve our recycling systems:

    • “Substantially greater support of community recycling programs with capital funding, technical assistance, and efforts to strengthen and grow local political commitment to recycling services.
    • Development of new and enhanced state and federal recycling policies.
    • Continued and expanded investment in domestic material processing and end markets.
    • Citizen and consumer engagement to create and sustain robust and appropriate recycling behavior.
    • Continued innovation in the collection, sorting and general recyclability of materials, including the building of flexibility and resiliency to add new materials into the system.
    • Broader stakeholder engagement in achieving all elements of true circularity, in which the fate of all materials is not just intended to be recycled, but that they are designed, collected, and actually turned into something new.”19

In the end, we need to focus on reducing waste, including “recyclables,” in order to turn the tide of excessive waste. We must stop wishing for easy and convenient solutions and instead take responsibility for our waste.

Will we do it? What are your ideas? Feel free to leave me a comment below. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “How Recycling Works,” SciShow, June 11, 2015. I love how succinctly this video breaks down how recycling works at the MRF. You’ll learn a lot in just 8 minutes!

Article, “What is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)?,” by Shelby Bell,

Video, “Single Stream Recycling – Tour a Material Recovery Facility (MRF),” Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, October 13, 2016.

Video, “Ever Wonder Where Your Recyclables Go? Get an Inside Look at Where the Magic Happens,” about the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in New York City, featured by Mashable Deals on youtube, May 29, 2018.

Article, “These Items Don’t Belong in Your Recycling,” by Ryan Deer,

Article, “The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle: What happens after you toss it into the bin?” by Debra Winter, The Atlantic, December 4, 2015.

Article, “Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?” by Renee Cho, Columbia Climate School, March 13, 2020.

Footnotes:

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. This 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 and other major glass recyclers have optical sorters that sort glass by color.

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!

How Glass Recycling Can and Should Work: Part 1

Glass is 100% recyclable!

“Ninety-three percent of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass,” according to a survey by the Glass Recycling Coalition.

In my part 1 and part 2 posts about glass recycling in Chattanooga, I learned and shared with you why glass is no longer accepted in curbside recycling. I shared that glass recycled through curbside for about 4 years was not recycled, it was landfilled instead. Last, I solved the mystery about whether or not the glass at the five recycling centers was actually recycled – and it is, by Strategic Materials in Atlanta.

I learned that glass recycling is really complex and difficult to understand. So I am explaining how the system works in general in two parts. I hope it helps you understand!

"Green

“Recycling glass saves one-quarter to one-third the energy over virgin materials production.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

Recycling happens when it is profitable

First, you have to realize that waste management and recycling are businesses. BIG businesses. The solid waste industry in the U.S. is a $17 billion per year industry and expected to increase to $25 billion by 2024.

So it comes down to money. Economics. Seems like all things do! I thought for years that it happened because it was the right thing to do for the environment.

Nope. Recycling happens because recycling makes money.

How glass is collected

It starts with you and me, the consumer. We clean and sort the glass, and recycle it through their local Solid Waste Division of the city or municipality where we reside.

In a single-stream recycling system, meaning a system in which all recyclables go into one blue bin, the materials are sent to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for sorting. A MRF’s primary function is to sort materials, decide what to do with those materials, and then sell and transfer them. Here’s a quick youtube video to give you a visual understanding:

How does this arrangement come to be? A city, local government, or municipality asks for and receives bids for waste management. A MRF is awarded the contract and often a hauling company as well; they are usually funded through property taxes. WestRock is the MRF for Chattanooga as well as many other municipalities in the Southeast U.S.

Almost all municipalities pay a MRF to handle and sort their recycling. Then the  MRF sorts the materials through a complex system (the process varies by company), and then they sell the materials for a profit. The primary markets for recyclable glass containers are the 75 glass container manufacturing plants in
the United States.

Sometimes, as in Chattanooga since January 2018, glass is not collected curbside. It must be taken to one of the five recycling centers, and that type of recycling is known as dual-stream recycling – materials are separated into specified bins by the consumer.

Glass is transported

Glass gets sent to a glass recycling company or glass manufacturer. The glass collected from dual-stream recycling goes straight to the glass recycling company. In our case, that is Strategic Materials, the largest glass recycling company in North America. In single-stream systems, the MRF separates the glass and sells it to a glass recycling company or manufacturer. (Single stream recycling has a lot of issues, especially with glass. I’ll cover that in Part 2.)

There are forty-six glass manufacturers in the U.S., and often glass must be transported across state lines for recycling. Some large cities with lively nightlife do not collect glass, such as New Orleans and Nashville. “Municipalities choosing to go without glass point to the cost of hauling a material with low market value as the reason, but other industry folks argue that the market for glass is not the problem. They consider the problem to be collection and assert that, if glass could be collected in ways that reduce its role as a contaminant, then we would see greater success with the material,” writes Beth Porter in Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine.

How glass is recycled

Glass is broken down and ground into cullet. Cullet and recycled glass melt at lower furnace temperatures than virgin (or new) glass ingredients, which saves energy. This also reduces carbon dioxide emissions. The Glass Recycling Coalition states: “Glass recycling helps to preserve limited natural resources by reducing raw material use, reduces energy consumption as recycled glass melts at lower temperatures than raw materials, saves money on reduced landfill tons, and reduces air emissions.” The Glass Packaging Institute adds that glass recycling “extends the life of plant equipment, such as furnaces,” another cost savings.

The technology for recycling glass just keeps getting better too. Watch this short NPR segment about it:

Unlike a plastic bottle, a glass bottle can become another glass bottle!

How Glass Recycling Should Work

Demonstrated in the following two infographics from the Glass Recycling Coalition is how the system should work when the recycling loop is not broken (meaning when the glass is not deposited into landfills):

"<yoastmark

It seems so simple!

"<yoastmark

“Any use of recovered glass saves resources,” said Luke Truman of Allagash Brewing & the Glass Recycling Coalition.

Glass Recycling Proponents

The Glass Recycling Coalition(GRC), a non-profit, “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 formed in 2016. Strategic Materials is a member. They also encourage MRF’s to become members. (WestRock is not a listed member, however.)

The Glass Packaging Institute (GPI) is a trade association representing the North American glass container industry. “GPI promotes glass as the optimal packaging choice, advances environmental and recycling policies, advocates industry standards, and educates packaging professionals.” They have an additional website called upgradetoglass.com, and it promotes the switch to glass over other materials because it is safer and does not leach toxins into food and beverages. They have a section called “Why Choose Glass as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle” that I recommend you read!

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) promotes the bottled beverage deposit system, called the Deposit Return System. In some states, this system charges the consumer a deposit fee of 5 or 10 cents. When the consumer returns that bottle for recycling, they get their money back. In some places, this includes glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. A Wall Street Journal article noted that “an average of around 63% of glass containers are recycled” in the 10 participating states. But states that don’t have deposit programs only have a glass recycling rate at around 24%.

Tennessee does not participate in the deposit system. However, there is currently a proposal called the Tennessee Bottle Bill Project.

There are additional uses for glass

On top of recycling glass to make new glass containers, there are many other uses for glass. MSW Management Weekly highlighted some of these uses, which are often referred to as secondary markets. They include road construction, either on the surface called “glassphalt” or as a road base aggregate.

Recycled glass in aggregate - isn't that pretty? Photo from Schneppa Glass.
Recycled glass in aggregate – isn’t that pretty? Photo from Schneppa Glass.

Recycled glass is also used as filler aggregate in storm drain and French drain systems. Other markets and uses include the fiberglass industry; glass beads for reflective paints; abrasives; foam glass; and other building materials – even countertops!

Recycled glass countertops and backsplash by Vetrazzo, a recycled glass surface company in California. How gorgeous!
Recycled glass countertops and backsplash by Vetrazzo, a recycled glass surface company in California. How gorgeous!

Obviously, there are lots of uses for glass.

There is a huge market for glass and so many uses for it. But if you search the internet for information about glass recycling, you’ll find many stories about different municipalities that no longer accept glass in their recycling system. The claim that there is limited or no market for recycled glass is not true. There is a huge market for it.

So why is this system breaking down? What problems are preventing recycling? That’s what I’ll be covering in Part 2. Thank you for reading!

 

Additional Resource:

Article, “Glass Recycling 101: Jars, Glass Cups and Wine Bottles,” Wine Cellar Innovations, accessed January 10, 2021.