Is glass recycling in crisis?
That’s the question asked by a growing number of people, from waste management experts, to glass producers, to ordinary consumers. Although glass has been a staple of curbside recycling programs for well over two decades, more and more communities are removing it from their lists of acceptable items.
At first, this may seem difficult to understand, given the many benefits associated with glass as a packaging material (including the fact that glass preserves and protects food without changing its taste or having any side effects on health) and in view of the positive environmental impact and energy savings that come from glass recycling. However, recycling managers are finding that the particular challenges of dealing with glass, as well as the economic implications of those challenges, mean that the numbers just don’t add up when it comes to glass recycling.
To better understand the situation, read on for a look at some of the challenges of glass recycling, and where the business may be headed.
Glass recycling challenges:
Glass is difficult to sort.
Glass presents challenges right from the beginning of the collection process. In single-stream programs, broken glass becomes mixed up with many other recyclables, making it extremely difficult to sort efficiently and thoroughly for separate processing. This can even be the case in dual-stream recycling programs or at drop-off centers, especially given that glass recycling is frequently contaminated when well-meaning consumers attempt to recycle ceramic cups, window panes, and fluorescent bulbs alongside glass bottles and jars, unaware that these items are not made of the same type of glass and therefore can’t be recycled together. The need for color sorting adds a further complicated step to this process: glass bottles must be separated by color because glass manufacturers are limited in the degree of mixed colors they are allowed to use to produce new containers.
Glass can contaminate other materials.
Not only is broken or crushed glass difficult to recycle on its own, but it’s also much more likely to get into and contaminate other recyclable materials. This can have a significant financial impact on recycling facilities. For example, businesses such as paper and cardboard mills, which buy used fiber from recycling plants, will pay much lower rates if the purchased fiber and materials contain crushed glass.
Glass is hard on recycling equipment.
In order to be recycled, glass must first be crushed and ground down to a uniform size, roughly the consistency of sand. Given how abrasive glass is, this is very hard on recycling equipment; glass crushers typically wear out very quickly and require frequent—and expensive—replacements.
Glass is a lower-priced commodity.
To understand why glass recycling may no longer be a viable program, it’s important to remember that recycling is a business, and as with any business, it doesn’t make sense to operate if you’re not making a profit. This is especially true of glass; never a highly priced commodity, glass has fallen in value even further in recent years, and the number of potential glass purchasers is also quite limited. The equation is simple: no market, no recycling.
The cost of shipping glass is high.
Furthermore, not only is it difficult for glass recycling managers to get a reasonable price for their glass, but they must also pay to ship the glass to the purchasers. Glass is heavy and expensive to ship, but most recycling facilities must pay these costs as it is relatively rare to find viable glass outlets located near recycling centers.
There are fewer negative environmental repercussions when glass is sent to the landfill.
No one is disputing the important environmental benefits of recycling glass, such as saving energy that would otherwise be spent manufacturing new glass from raw sand. But unlike many other recyclable materials, glass that is sent to the landfill has no harmful effect on the environment nor public health. Glass is an inert substance that does not decompose, does not produce any landfill gas or greenhouse gas emissions, and does not produce any other contaminants that need to be removed from the landfill and treated separately. Because of this, recycling managers may be more likely to prefer sending glass to the landfill rather than pursuing recycling programs, which are challenging and not particularly economically viable.
What could be next?
Glass is certainly not going anywhere as a packaging material, but given how challenging it is to recycle, particularly from a business standpoint, it does seem like the future of glass recycling programs may be in jeopardy. Industry experts predict that, unless municipalities and consumers are willing to pay more to support the recycling process, we can expect to see glass dropped from an increasing number of curbside recycling programs.