The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 7

Last updated on August 23, 2021.

Bell pepper and green beans in convenient plastic packaging
These food items do not require this much packaging. Photo by me

In my last article, I introduced take-back programs. Today we will continue that topic and look at programs that are a bit more successful, meaning that the rate of recycling is high.

Snack bag found on the beach in South Carolina. Photo by me

“Plastic packaging for food makes up the majority of municipal waste in America.” -A Plastic Ocean

TerraCycle programs

I love TerraCycle’s entire concept of making new things from waste, and I think its mission of recycling everything and eliminating waste is brilliant. Many companies sponsor take-back programs through TerraCycle at no cost to the consumer.1 These are awesome for waste streams in which there is no recycling option. There’s one for instrument strings, pens and writing tools  (which has a waiting list), and Brita filters. I participate in Bausch + Lomb’s free program to recycle contact lenses and their blister packs (and they accept all brands, not just Bausch + Lomb).2 This particular program has drop-off sites all over the place, usually at eye care offices. I love this one because I have to wear contact lenses for vision correction.

Though these programs encourage recycling and keep waste from littering the environment, they actually discourage companies from exploring new packaging options. A company can sponsor a recycling stream, such as waste from applesauce packets, juice pouches, snack bags, cosmetic and personal care items, and pay TerraCycle to recycle the items. In this way, the companies can take a passive approach and not have to deal with the problem directly. It gives consumers the impression that those companies are taking sustainable actions, but it really makes waste the consumer’s problem. It takes a lot of time and effort to clean, save, and ship the items; and even if the program is free, not everyone can or will voluntarily do it. These programs are a band-aid for the gushing wound of pollution.

“These programs are often funded by consumer product brands and are usually just a mechanism for the company to claim their non-recyclable products are recyclable.” -Jennie Romer, attorney and sustainability expert3

Again, I love what TerraCycle is doing! But I think it gives companies a reason to not be more active in their sustainability efforts. I think it’s a way for companies to take a NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) approach but not have to do much more than cover the minor costs. TerraCycle should be used for things people cannot avoid using, such as Brita filters, contact lenses, laundry detergent waste, shoes, and school supplies. But there are alternatives for things like snack bags, applesauce pouches, and coffee pods. Consumers should seek alternatives for those rather than trying to recycle them.

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Glass Bottle Exchange

Homestead Creamery returnable milk bottles
This type of milk bottle used to be commonplace. Photo from Homestead Creamery

Historically, the bottled beverage industry used take-back programs during the twentieth century. This system of using returnable glass bottles for milk and soft drinks was better than recycling because it was truly a circular economy system. It is also the most sustainable type of container deposit program. Bottles were washed and refilled as many as 20-50 times. While a few companies use this system today through a deposit program, like Homestead Creamery (sold at some Kroger’s grocery stores), this system of glass bottle exchange has largely disappeared in the United States. However, you can check Drink Milk In Glass Bottle’s website to see if there are any options in your region.4

Glass Coca-Cola bottles in red carry cases
Remember these? Image by SatyaPrem from Pixabay

Container Deposit Programs

A very successful type of take-back program is the container deposit program. While sometimes controversial, they reduce litter and environmental pollution and improve recycling rates. The consumer is charged a deposit fee of 5 or 10 cents per bottle or can. When the consumer returns that item for recycling, they get their deposit money back. This can include glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. Some call this system a tax, but it is clearly a deposit – when you return the container you get your money back, unlike with taxes.

Soda can with container deposit information engraved.
Many cans and bottles feature container deposit information as shown here. Photo by me

Benefits

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) promotes the bottled beverage deposit system internationally.5 There are so many benefits to this system, as CRI President Susan Collins noted:6

      • Dramatic reductions in litter and marine debris
      • Reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions due to fewer containers that need to be made from virgin materials
      • Additional jobs in recycling
      • More high-quality scrap for manufacturers
      • Extra income for consumers, charities, and community groups

Here’s a great short video from CRI explaining the system:

These systems are not meant to replace curbside recycling, but to supplement them to increase overall recycling. Curbside recycling is still not available to 50% of the American population, and curbside doesn’t address away-from-home consumption. Even where it is available, recycling rates have gradually dropped. “This decline is due in part to the increase in consumption of beverages away from home, and in public places where there are few available collection outlets for recycling. The drop in the recycling rate is also due to the shift away from aluminum to PET, which has a lower recycling rate,” according to Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010).7

“Using only single-stream curbside recycling (blue bins) fails to achieve even half of the recycling rate of container deposit laws. While curbside programs should be part of the recycling equation, because 30 percent to 50 percent of beverage containers are consumed away from home, residential programs alone can’t possibly be expected to produce high recycling rates.” -Susan Collins, CRI President

Container Deposit Programs are Quantifiably Successful

The first US beverage container deposit laws were passed in the early 1970s in Oregon and Vermont. Currently, this program exists in 10 US states and Guam, and 30 other countries around the world. “States with container deposit laws capture beverage bottles for recycling at a significantly higher rate, and the quality of recycled materials (meaning the level of contamination) is superior to materials collected from curbside recycling programs.”8 The overall recycling rate for bottles and cans with a deposit is 59%, compared to only 22% for bottles and cans without a deposit. Clearly, this system works well. The graph below shows the rates:

Graph from the Container Recycling Institute (CRI)

The participating states are California, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Oregon’s bottle capture rate is 81%. Sadly, there are no states in the southeast or states that border the Gulf of Mexico that participate. These are missed opportunities to protect our oceans and rivers.

Examples

Oregon’s BottleDrop Refillables program is a successful, circular loop between the program and craft breweries. Consumers pay a deposit and return the bottles to get the deposit back. Bottles are sorted, washed, inspected, and delivered back to Oregon’s craft beverage producers. According to their website, 598,755 bottles have been saved from being crushed and recycled.9 An example in Europe is Germany, where almost 46% of all drinks are sold in reusable bottles which are refilled 40-50 times before being sent for recycling.

Container Deposit Programs as Law

Legislation for this system is commonly referred to as “Bottle Bills.” A national bottle bill could be implemented as part of the recently proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. This would make the collection, redemption, and recycling of bottles and cans regulated and consistent and could increase the recycling rate to 80%!

“For the sake of our climate, our oceans and our future generations, we must do more to collect high-quality recyclable bottles and cans that can be used to produce new products. A national container deposit-refund law can make that happen.” -Susan Collins, CRI President10

Unfortunately, bottlers are usually against such bills because they do increase costs for them, though only slightly. Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania, wrote that every time a new Container Deposit bill is introduced or an expansion is proposed for an existing one, “Coke, Pepsi, and other bottlers hire lobbyists and run ad campaigns designed to stop them. And they usually do.” But the companies making so many single-use disposable containers need to step-up and be part of the solution.

Containers as Litter

I personally grew up in a container deposit state that also had curbside recycling, and never even thought to question it. It was just what we did (in addition to curbside recycling). Our family brought back bottles and cans to the grocery store each week, and we’d receive either the cash or a credit on our grocery total. I continued this practice into my adulthood. I didn’t see as much litter on the sides of the roads. In Tennessee, I feel like I see trash on every street, playground, and parking lot; much of the litter is from single-use beverage containers. According to CRI, beverage containers comprise 40-60% of litter.

Image of plastic container art dolphin shaped to represent percentages of plastic containers recycled.
See this and additional plastic art projects by clicking on the image. Photo from CRI

“There are many quantifiable but just as important benefits of increased container recycling: the cleaner roadways, the healthier waterways, the growth in local jobs and green businesses and the satisfaction that we are doing what’s right not only for the planet but for future generations.” –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010)11

Solutions

Some companies use greenwashing and ‘sustainability’ to make consumers buy more. However, as long as packaging remains the responsibility of the consumer, we must consume less and buy more consciously. Companies must invest in better packaging and establish Extended Producer Responsibility programs. States must implement Container Deposit Programs to curb the impact of single-use disposable beverages. These systems reduce litter and increase recycling rates. Ultimately, though, ceasing the use of single-use disposable containers is one of the most impactful things we can do for the environment.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a link to the first post in this series in case you missed it. In my next post, I’ll explore companies that are already making recycling and reduction part of their mission.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Note: There are no affiliate links in this post; all links are for informational purposes only.

 

Additional Resource:

Publications, Data Archive, Container Recycling Institute, accessed February 28, 2021.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Last updated on May 21, 2023.

Plastic bottles and bags (trash) in a variety of clear, white, blue, yellow and greens together.
Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels.

In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash.

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.

“Industrially compostable (also known as commercially compostable) items are those that will likely not break down in your home compost, but will break down under specifically controlled temperatures and pressures designed to create compost at a large scale…If a plastic-resembling item is labeled ‘compostable,’ it is probably industrially compostable only.” -Eve O. Schaub, author of Year Of No Garbage2

Examples

Let’s look at four examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”3 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.

Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”4 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”5

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.6 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

A person holding 'compostable' plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York.
‘Compostable’ plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York. Don’t buy these! Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash.

“So let me make sure I understand this. I’m supposed to get my one-use, takeaway cup, and as the name indicates, I take it away. And then when I’m done I . . . bring it to the nearest industrial composting facility? Oh sure, I think there’s one of those at the mall in between the Hallmark Store and the movie theater.” -Eve O. Schaub, author of Year Of No Garbage7

World Centric products

World Centric brand cups.
World Centric brand cups. Photo by Marie Cullis.
World Centric brand spoons in package.
World Centric brand spoons. Photo by Marie Cullis.

This seems like a great company: they are a Certified B company, they donate 25% of their profits, and they participate in carbon offsets. Their products, “Made from plants, not petroleum,” are made from renewable plants. Specifically, the spoons are made from 70% non-GMO corn and 30% talc. While this is technically better for the environment, these are still single-use disposable items that are only compostable in a “commercial composting facility.” The likelihood that these products will make it into a commercial composting facility after their single use is low. If they go to the landfill, they will likely not break down at all. At least this company isn’t using fossil fuels to make its products.

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea at the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional Resources:

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, TheCounter.org, August 5, 2019. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.

Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.

Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.

Footnotes:

How Glass Recycling Can and Should Work: Part 2

Last updated on January 27, 2024.

Pretty colored glass bottles, sitting on a wood surface in a rainbow sequence. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

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

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

in one of my previous articles, I explained 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, 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, Reimagine1

Exploring the realities of glass recycling

There is a huge market for glass

According to MSW Management Weekly, cullet has declined in price in most parts of the country.2 They cited that contamination leads to increased processing costs thus lowering the value of glass. They wrote that many communities 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 glass market is just plain wrong. If you’ll recall, recycling has to be profitable for it to happen. Many MRFs 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.

Rows of clear glass bottles with a greenish tint. Photo by ThreeMilesPerHour on Pixabay.
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.”3 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. 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, sitting on the ground in front of dumpsters or recycling bins. Photo by Meineresterampe on Pixabay.
Glass containers with labels and lids. Photo by Meineresterampe on Pixabay.

Equipment damage

Another reason many MRFs assert that they cannot sort the glass before it reaches their facility is 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.

Close up image of cullet, or broken down glass, in clear, green, and brown colors. 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, 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.”4

The purpose of an MRF is to sort materials and divert them accordingly, but they are also a business that must generate income. If an 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.5

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.”6

A Domino Effect

This statement 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.”7

Many MRFs demanded glass 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% goes to glass processors. However, over 38% goes to landfills either as cover, fill, or trash.8

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.”9

The Atlanta area

In June 2016, Canton, Georgia announced that their garbage and recycling collection company, Waste Management, would end the acceptance of glass bottles curbside on July 1, 2016. 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.10

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.

View of Atlanta, Georgia cityscape from a tall building or high place. 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.11

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.12

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 has a 97% participation rate. City officials attribute that to a comprehensive education campaign.13

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” which is linked under Additional Resources below, 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 that 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 can 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, can 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!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Breakthrough Glass Recycling Opportunities,” Glass Recycling Coalition, December 11, 2018.

Footnotes:

How Glass Recycling Can and Should Work: Part 1

Last updated on January 20, 2024.

Inside of the green glass recycling dumpster with lots of wine bottles.
Green glass recycling dumpster with lots of wine bottles. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Glass is 100% recyclable!

“Ninety-three percent of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass.” -Glass Recycling Coalition1

In my article 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 of 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 complex and difficult to understand. So I am explaining how the system works in general in two parts. I hope it helps you understand!

“Recycling glass saves one-quarter to one-third the energy over virgin materials production.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic2

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. was worth approximately $91 billion in 2022, an increase from $82 billion in 2021.3

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 the 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 short 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 by the consumer into specific bins.

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 glass market 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,” wrote Beth Porter in Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine.4

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: “Recycling glass has big environmental payoffs…it saves raw materials, lessens demand for energy, and cuts CO2 emissions.”5 The Glass Packaging Institute adds that glass recycling extends the life of plant equipment, such as furnaces, another cost savings.6

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):

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It seems so simple!

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Glass Recycling Proponents

The Glass Recycling Coalition(GRC), a non-profit, is a “mission-centric, organization fostering collaboration across the glass recycling value chain” who is “dedicated to breaking down barriers in order to keep glass in the recycling stream, meet and grow end-market demand and build awareness of the benefits of glass recycling.”7 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.”8

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.9 However, states that don’t have deposit programs only have a glass recycling rate of around 24%.

Tennessee does not participate in the deposit system. However, there is 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 in secondary markets. One of these includes road construction, using cullet 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 drains 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!

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.

Footnotes: