Have you noticed the recent glass recycling trend? If you haven’t, it’s rather alarming. Municipalities all over the country are dropping their glass recycling programs.
Glass is the only natural material that can be recycled countless times while maintaining its original integrity.
According to Stanford University, Recycling one ton of glass saves over 1,300 lbs of sand, 400 lbs of soda, 400 lbs of limestone, and 150 lbs of feldspar. Additionally, recycling a single glass bottle conserves as much energy as is required to run a 100-watt light bulb for 4-hours!
Glass recycling is sort of the original bellwether of the green industry. Recycling glass in the United States has been going on for decades, but really picked up steam in the 1970s as consumers were charged a deposit fee for products in glass containers. Ten states still have this program in place today. The nationwide recycling rate was holding at 33% while states that have the container deposit law in place experience an average glass recycling rate of 70%. The program clearly works as it raises awareness of resource conservation.
Glass Recycling Programs Are in Jeopardy
Recycling centers nationwide are citing costs as the primary reason for getting out of the business. It’s simply become too costly to perform and centers are starting to discontinue the service. Cities such as Harrisburg, Baton Rouge, Iowa City, Lubbock, Charleston, Birmingham, and countless others have already stopped their programs while too many to count are considering the stoppage as well.
As municipal programs cut back or eliminate glass recycling programs, the private sector is taking the same actions.
What Drives Glass Recycling Costs
Glass prepared for recycling is largely seen as a commodity in the country. The inputs to make glass are fairly inexpensive and many private companies argue we are not running out of sand any time soon. They neglect to account for the huge contribution to landfill waste this creates. The challenge is that decades of conditioning and education has worked and people in much of the country are willing and more than happy to recycle.
The challenge ties to a couple factors, the economy and how recyclables are collected. The economy is fairly healthy and fuel prices are holding at record lows. Low fuel and energy costs, combined with fairly inexpensive ingredients such as glass translates into a fairly inexpensive material to manufacture from scratch. Many analysts argue that these costs are not permanent and this may simply be a trend. If these costs were to go back up, then recycling glass could become more economically viable.
The second factor driving costs, and it is a big one, is how recyclable materials are gathered across much of the country. Participation was fairly low in the 1990s. It was suggested that low participation was tied to how difficult it was to recycle materials. Back then, everything had to be sorted by material type and in the case of glass, by color. An idea was implemented to allow customers to combine all their recyclable materials into a single bin and let it be sorted out at the facility. The idea caught on and is what we see in much of the country today; although glass is still frequently separated.
To make matters worse, many pick up services compact the material in order to be able to make more stops and carry more material. This compaction process causes all recycled materials to become contaminated and frequently crushes the glass into pieces that are too small to be sorted. Glass for example, must be sorted by color because recycled glass retains its color when processed.
With material co-mingled together, recycling centers are struggling to sort the material in a cost-effective manner. The nation’s largest recycler, Strategic Materials, explained that 20-years ago they would receive a truck loaded with up to 98% glass; but now when they receive a truck it is nearly 50% glass with the remainder being contaminants and trash. Depending on the contaminants, the entire load may end up getting rejected and not recycled. Residents of Denver were informed this year that only 17% of the glass picked up was actually recycled due to contamination and the materials being compacted into pieces too small to sort.
What Can Be Done
This is not a small challenge; but there are some things that you can do. First off, look at recycling options where the glass materials are dropped off. You sort them out and take them in. In nations such as Germany where residents presort the materials by color, the participation rate is 81%. Belgium is actually holding at a 96% recycling rate, so we know it can be done. The key is a cultural acceptance that we need to do some of the work in order to make this process viable.
Countless industries have benefited by taking the traditionally useless byproduct of manufacturing and repurpose that material into something useful. Recycled tires become playground mulch, sawdust from fire lumber mills became fire logs, and the list goes on. It’s time for glass to have a similar level of innovation. What can be done with all those pieces too small to sort or those truckloads that include contaminants from Pyrex or ceramic dishes?
What thoughts do you have – let us know in the comments below!