Recycling is NOT The Answer

Recycling, separated into paper bags and blue bins
Image by GreenStar from Pixabay

I used to be an avid believer in recycling. When I was 11, my family began collecting and taking our recycling to the local center. Soon after, the county we lived in passed a recycling ordinance. I was hooked. I even wrote a paper in 9th grade about landfills and recycling, citing a study about mining landfills for recycling and resources that I’d found inspiring.1

Since then I’ve dutifully washed, separated, and toted my recycling, no matter where I’ve resided. If there was no recycling service, I tracked down the recycling centers. At parties or on vacations where recycling wasn’t available, I carted my recyclables all the way home so that I could recycle them. I have spent a great deal of time over my life teaching and educating others on the how’s and why’s of recycling.

Imagine my disappointment just a few years ago when I discovered that only 9% of plastics are recycled.

“Recycling is great, but unfortunately it is not enough. There’s simply too much recycling to process, and we’re still consuming way too many resources.” -Kathryn Kellogg, 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste

Steel and aluminum recycling bales, compacted and very colorful.
Compacted steel and aluminum recycling bales. Photo by Steven Penton on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The Notion of Recycling is Misleading

The reason that recycling is NOT the sole solution to our waste problem is the misconception that it IS the sole solution to our waste problem.

Many well-meaning people toss their once-used plastic bottle or container into a blue bin somewhere and think that they’ve done their part. But most do not know the real impact of what they are doing. This is because we’ve been fed the myth of recycling for decades. Plastic manufacturers carefully curated the message that we can use all of the plastic we want to because we can just recycle it. That’s a very convenient notion but not at all how it works.

Recycling actually increases consumption, because it gives consumers a false sense of taking care of the environment and doing the right thing. The fact that we think we can recycle something often drives our purchases. It is acceptable to us to buy single-serve plastic yogurt cups and plastic single drink bottles because we can justify the waste those things create with recycling. We pass these notions on to our children as well.

Additionally, companies push these falsehoods through marketing. They want us to think their products are recyclable or sustainable in some way, in order to drive up sales. Some will go as far as ‘greenwashing‘ their products.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” -Larry Thomas, former head of Society of the Plastics Industry2

Bales of contaminated platic bottles on a pallet.
Photo by recycleharmony on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recycling Myths

There are many recycling myths! Here are just a few of them.

An Endless Loop

First, recycling is not a clean, closed, endless loop where everything that goes in is remade and reused. Materials, especially plastics, degrade in quality. Many plastics are not recycled at all. Since plastics are polymers mixed with chemical additives, plastic products are typically downcycled. Downcycling means made into a lower-quality plastic. Therefore, new plastic from petroleum is often preferred by manufacturers in order to keep making equivalent-quality plastic products. Further, new plastic is often cheaper than recycled. “The current cost of virgin plastic nurdles is much cheaper than the cost of recycled plastic nurdles, so it doesn’t make economic sense to purchase recycled plastic – and much of our carefully sorted plastic ends up stuck in a landfill, incinerated, or shipped abroad.”3

So a plastic water bottle is not remade into another plastic water bottle. It may be downcycled into carpeting or synthetic fabric. After an item outlives its use as a lesser type of plastic container, carpet, or plastic lumber, it is still landfilled. So while technically recycled (downcycled) one time, it is not an endless loop of the same materials being used over and over again.

Recycled content

Further on the myth of reusing materials, have you ever noticed on something you purchased has a label that reads “made from 45% post-consumer” waste/content/plastics? This simply means that 45% of the product or packaging is made from recycled materials. While 100% post-consumer exists, most often, virgin materials must be mixed in with recycled materials to maintain a product’s durability. This is especially true with plastics, paper, and cardboard.

Recycling diverts waste from landfills

Another myth is that recycling automatically diverts waste from landfills. This is just not true. Many recyclables end up in landfills if recycling is contaminated. 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 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 plastic bags, which are not recyclable. Plastic bags can get tangled in the machinery, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables. If recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled (or even incinerated) rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

If it is collected, then it is recycled

Just because you put it in a blue bin that “accepts” something does not automatically mean those materials are recycled.

Plastics #3-#7 are often collected in municipalities across the country but they are sent to landfills or are incinerated. Some still export their mixed plastics to other countries. But collecting mixed plastics through single-stream recycling is a big part of the problem. “Acceptance of such a plastic item at a [Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)] alone is not sufficient and reasonable assurance to a customer that it will be manufactured into another item, as required by the FTC…Companies cannot legitimately place recycle symbols or “Check Locally” text on products made from plastics #3-7 because MRFs nationwide cannot assure consumers that valueless plastics #3-7 bales will actually be bought and recycled into a new product.”4

“Acceptance by a [Materials Recovery Facility] is Not Proof of Recycling.”5

Bird's eye view of paper bales at a recycling center.
Aerial view of paper bales at a recycling center. Image by WFranz from Pixabay.

Volume

The amount of waste and “recycling” humans create is ridiculous, and most people really don’t have any idea about the total volume. Waste and recycling go into a bin and we don’t think about it again. This further creates misconceptions surrounding recycling simply because we don’t understand the volumes of waste we create. If you combined the waste from just you and your neighbors, how much waste is that? Now imagine the amount from your entire neighborhood, city, state, and then nation.

The EPA estimates that of the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (aka trash) generated in the U.S., approximately 69 million tons were recycled.6

Of this, 35,680,000 tons were plastic. Thus, an 800-pound bale of PET would be roughly 18,400 of the 16-ounce PET Bottles.7 Other estimates vary slightly, depending on the size and actual weight of each individual plastic bottle. Now I am not a mathematician. But if all plastics from the 35 million tons were plastic PET bottles, and one ton weighs 2,000 pounds, that would mean there are about 46,000 plastic bottles per ton. Then multiply 35,680,000 by 46,000, and that equals 1,641,280,000,000 individual plastic bottles. And that’s just plastics from one year!

A woman at the foot of a hill of plastic bottles, sorting recycling in Pakistan.
A woman scavenges for survival in a mountain of plastic waste, Pakistan. Photo by baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recycling is Important

Extracting natural resources is terrible for the environment, human health, wildlife, and directly affects climate change. Preventing the extraction of virgin materials is important, especially when it comes to fossil fuels. Both extracting and burning fossil fuels greatly contribute to global warming.

“Recycling consistently requires less resources and produces fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than production of new materials,” wrote Beth Porter.8 For example, recycling aluminum uses 95% less energy than extraction. Almost 75% of all aluminum that has ever been produced is still in use. Paper has a recycling rate of approximately 68.2% (in 2018), the highest compared to other materials in municipal solid waste.9

Plastic recycling bales, colored and white/clear items.
Bales of plastic ready for shipping. Photo by Larry Koester on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The Plastics Market

“Recycling depends on the idea that the cost of collecting and sorting certain materials is rational because somebody will want to buy them to make something else. In reality, many plastics have no such market.”-The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund10

Plastic production is complex and chemical. Worse, “most plastic is derived from oil drilling and/or fracking. Ethane cracker facilities turn ethane into ethylene, a building block of most common plastics.” We know that the oil industry, gas processing facilities, and ethane crackers are all associated with climate change and environmental problems.11 “The massive expansion of plastic production in the U.S., fueled by at least $200 billion of investment in 340 petrochemical projects, is flooding the market and causing polyethylene [recycling] prices to decline to historic lows – below prices last seen during the 2008 financial crisis.”12

Since there is little market for recycled plastics, it exacerbates the waste crisis. Recycled plastic must be given some kind of economic value so that collecting it for recycling has a financial incentive.13

“The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic — and too many different types of plastics — being produced; and there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material. Which makes reuse impossible.”14

Stacked bales of recycling from a distance, inside the Strategic Materials recycling plant in South Windsor, Connecticut.
Bales of recycling at the Strategic Materials recycling plant in South Windsor, Connecticut. Photo by CT Senate Republicans on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What Can You do?

“Somewhere along the way, key parts of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra got lost. We have lost track of reducing and reusing.”15

PLEASE RECYCLE! This post is not intended to discourage you from recycling.

But recycling is not the answer to our waste crisis.

We must restructure the way we think about trash. We must change our goals surrounding waste. The goals should focus on refusing, reducing, and reusing long before recycling enters the picture – in that order! If you read my article on how recycling works, you’ll recall that recycling processes are very complex and recycling is easily contaminated.

It is also imperative that we move away from single-use disposables. That alone could help improve pollution, reduce ocean microplastics, and help climate change. Thank you for reading, please share this article and subscribe for future articles!

 

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!

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“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):

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It seems so simple!

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“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.

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

Last updated on September 1, 2020.

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

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

How did I find out?

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

Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition

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

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

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

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

Recycling is extremely complex

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

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

How recycling works in Chattanooga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glass causes problems without the right sorting equipment

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

Are there solutions for the MRFs?

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

Despite the issues, keep trying

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading. And please recycle your glass!