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:

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 Works (or Doesn’t Work) in Chattanooga, TN

Last updated on October 9, 2022.

glass bottles, Photo by SatyaPrem on Pixabay
Photo by SatyaPrem on Pixabay.

Recycling is easy, at least on the surface. But what happens to recycling after we put it in the blue bin? In my city, I can read the rules on recycling through the city’s curbside service, but I realized that I don’t know what happens to that recycling after it leaves my house. And the answers to simple questions are not clear.

The City of Chattanooga has had some problems with recycling in the past. Glass is not accepted through curbside recycling, but glass brought to the five recycling centers in Chattanooga is recycled.

For a time, glass wasn’t really recycled in Chattanooga

I used to take all of my recyclables to the recycling centers around town before signing up for Chattanooga curbside recycling in 2011. Recyclables had to go in clear or blue plastic bags and then be set on the curb where trash bins were placed. Certain materials such as glass, shredded paper, and numbered plastics #3-#7 were not accepted then. My family took our glass to the recycling center every couple of weeks. It wasn’t a big deal, nor was it a hassle. I was happy to do my part.

Glass recycling, photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay
Glass recycling, photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

The city first issued the large 96-gallon blue bins in Fall 2014. Shortly after, the City notified residents that it would accept glass curbside. I was excited, and for 4 years, I rinsed and deposited my glass in the bin. During this time, I discovered that in general, plastic has a low recycling rate. But glass is infinitely more recyclable. I also learned that glass is safer than plastics when it comes to food and beverage consumption. So I began using far more glass than plastic and recycling it curbside.

But during those 4 years, our glass wasn’t really being recycled even though residents dutifully cleaned it, sorted it, and placed it in the blue curbside bins. It turns out that that glass was being landfilled.

No more curbside glass recycling

In January 2018, city residents received a postcard from the City of Chattanooga announcing that they would no longer accept glass in curbside recycling. The postcard requested residents to participate in a survey about glass recycling options in the future.1 Residents would still be able to take their glass to the recycling centers around the city. I thought this was weird, so I looked into it.

Glass was going to the landfill

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported this January 2018:

“The postcard says glass put into curbside recycling bins is likely to break, mixing with other recycling and making it difficult to sort. That means the entire contents of the bin would end up in the landfill. It’s an ongoing problem. The city added glass to its curbside recycling around the fall of 2014 after it introduced the 96-gallon blue bins. But in August 2015, the Times Free Press reported the glass — and the other recyclables with it in the bins — was being landfilled because it was too dangerous to sort.”2

The City should not have waited four years to stop accepting glass curbside if there was no way to properly handle it. Some, like myself, did not see this article in 2015, so I continued depositing my glass into the curbside bin. I emailed the city about my disappointment but I only received an auto-reply type of response.

Brown glass bottles in one large bin.
Photo by Bart Heirdon on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Orange Grove & WestRock

According to a 2015 Chattanooga Times Free Press article, the glass was not recycled because the local separation center, Orange Grove, “isn’t equipped to remove broken glass from the curbside containers’ mix of paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, plastic bags and metal cans.” Their workers were separating the city’s recycling by hand and the broken glass was causing injuries.3 This means the city did not yet have adequate infrastructure to deal with a growing curbside recycling service.

At some point, WestRock (previously RockTenn) took over the contract with the City of Chattanooga to process recycling, but for a time, Orange Grove and WestRock worked together. WestRock, a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), does have machinery that sorts the glass out of the mix of recyclables, but they couldn’t sell it profitably, according to a manager at WestRock. So the crushed glass was used as landfill cover. “‘We’re having a tough time getting rid of it,’ he stated.” The city’s Public Works Director at the time wasn’t aware that glass put into the city’s blue curbside containers wasn’t being recycled, which seems odd.

In 2015, Orange Grove realized they needed to upgrade their sorting equipment for all materials since curbside recycling in Chattanooga had almost doubled by then. But they needed $1.6 million to do so. They tried to fundraise and a few foundations donated by the local county government declined to assist. The City of Chattanooga provided $250,000. But since this is a city service, shouldn’t the City of Chattanooga pay for that?

In the end, it must have been more efficient to transfer all recycling processing to WestRock than it was to upgrade the Orange Grove center. Further, Orange Grove changed their direction in 2016 to focus on more community-based services. But they still staff the City of Chattanooga’s five recycling centers and three refuse centers.

Today, all curbside recycling in Chattanooga is processed by WestRock.

Why would a city “recycle” something they can’t actually recycle?

If a city or municipality isn’t really recycling something they claim to recycle, it may be because a city like Chattanooga wants to market itself as a greener community than it actually is. Or the goal may be to attract new businesses, entrepreneurs, developers, and young educated people who like the outdoors and sustainable living. Additionally, perhaps Chattanooga wants to get as far away as possible from its past perception as the “dirtiest city in America.”

The Chattanooga Code of Ordinances states that they will collect recycling, but it does not promise to make sure it is recycled. “Eligible curbside recyclable materials include all clean aluminum cans, cardboard, paper products, plastics stamped one (1) through seven (7), tin cans, and food packaging.” As of 2021, an updated ordinance lists glass as a recycling contaminant, but I believe before that glass was listed.4 Note that only plastics #1 and #2 are recycled in Chattanooga and the rest are collected but landfilled instead of actually recycled.

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

 

Questions About Glass Recycling

Through a series of inquiries about recycling, I found my way to a representative at WestRock and asked specific questions about if and how glass was being recycled. The representative was professional and somewhat responsive, but I did not receive answers to my questions. Since the City’s Recycling Department was not helpful either, I ended up contacting the Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC). Through them found my way to a company called Strategic Materials, a member of GRC. I was able to speak to the Vice President of Marketing & Communications, Laura Hennemann, 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. Both Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition try to teach that glass is 100% recyclable. They help educate residents and consumers, materials recovery facilities (MRFs), local governments and municipalities, and solid waste haulers. The Glass Recycling Coalition’s 2018 survey concluded that 93% of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass, so obviously, it’s important to people.5

Recycling is extremely complex. If you want to read specifically about how glass recycling works, you can read my articles on glass recycling.

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

How recycling works in Chattanooga

The Public Works Department in the City of Chattanooga manages garbage and single-stream recycling (meaning all materials mixed together) 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. The trucks deliver the materials to our materials recovery facility (MRF), WestRock. The primary purpose of a MRF is to sort materials. WestRock takes the recycling materials, sorts them, and sells the materials to recyclers.

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

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.

The glass that residents take to the five recycling centers in Chattanooga does get recycled directly 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 have an optical sorter in their Atlanta facility, which sorts the glass by color. Chattanooga has not updated its signage, so the separate bins at the centers remain.

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

Glass causes problems without the right sorting equipment

WestRock, as do many MRFs, asserts 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 broken glass pieces mixing in with the rest of the materials and they are difficult to separate out.

That’s why residents in Chattanooga are no longer able to place glass in the curbside bins. If you still are, please stop. It is a wasted effort because it’s going to the landfill and likely causing a bunch of other recyclables to go into the landfill as well. Keep in mind that curbside glass from between 2014 and 2018 was already landfilled. So rinse your glass, save it all in a box, and run it to the recycling center every couple of weeks.

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 Marie Cullis.

Are there solutions for the MRFs?

Yes. There is special machinery that can sort the glass pieces from single-stream recycling systems, but it is a major capital investment for the MRFs. So they often landfill the glass instead.

Another solution is to collect glass separately, curbside. Chattanooga surveyed almost 4,000 residents about glass. 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. Over half of the respondents were also not willing to haul their glass to the recycling centers.6 That means a lot of glass is being thrown in the trash.

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.

My son recycling glass with me at one of the local recycling centers, 2018. He is tossing a glass jar into the large bin.
My son recycling glass with me at one of the local recycling centers, 2018. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Despite the issues, keep trying

Recycling alone is not the solution. Reducing and refusing waste is the key.

Glass is 100% recyclable. Glass is a better option than plastic, as far as waste is concerned. In a worst-case scenario, I’d rather have glass in landfills (and oceans) instead of plastic. Why? Because plastic leaches toxins into the water and poisons marine life. Plastic releases chemicals known to cause cancer or other health problems. Glass does not contain these chemicals. 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.

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

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