Glass is endlessly recyclable. The most common products made from cullet can be reborn, without sacrificing purity. Recycling it also makes sense from a conservation perspective. Recycling a ton of glass saves over a ton of natural resources; every 10 percent of cullet used in manufacturing translates to about 3 percent less energy cost.
The practice makes sense for manufacturers dependent on the commodity. The container and fiberglass industries collectively purchase 3.2 million tons of recycled glass annually, according to the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI).
But the problem is recycling glass doesn’t necessarily work for MRFs. The abrasive material is hard on equipment. It breaks and it is expensive to ship. And there is, at best, spotty infrastructure to support them in this costly, labor-intensive undertaking. Consequently, MRFs’ monetary return is often zero on glass, meaning it makes more economic sense to landfill it than to process it.
But some big waste generators and recycling organizations are looking hard at this problematic material. They have begun to go straight to the source—the regions impacted—to learn their unique barriers and ways around them.
New Belgium Brewing Co., for example, wants to lessen the carbon footprint tied to its work. Overall, 38 percent of the emissions associated with the company's products come from the manufacturing of glass bottles.
And in addition to assessing its own operations, the craft brewer has begun to address glass recycling industry-wide.
“We helped found the Glass Recycling Coalition to support the collection of more glass to be recycled into its highest and best use,” says Katie Wallace, New Belgium Brewing Company’s assistant director of sustainability.
“We know we have a nationwide infrastructure issue, which has to be solved collaboratively,” she says. The coalition is a collaboration of beverage companies and the glass processing and recycling industry.
Wallace will speak more on this topic at the Waste360 Recycling Summit on Wednesday Sept. 21, along with Michelle Goth, regional business director, Ripple Glass and Tom Outerbridge, manager of municipal recycling with Sims.
Among the coalition's initiatives is the creation of a decision-making matrix and library of best practices to help municipalities recycle glass.
Coalition members are also creating a heat map to identify regions that are making a go of glass recovery where they will collect best practices. The map will also pinpoint locations where glass recycling is suffering, with plans to provide direct assistance to those communities.
Pulling municipalities into the picture
“What will work is going to be different depending on location, the collection systems in place and proximity to glass manufacturing plants, among other factors,” says Wallace.
The coalition is creating a network to pull in participation from stakeholders beyond its members. “We have for example reached out to over 50 state and municipal recycling directors to hear their ideas and better understand their challenges,” she says.
Closed Loop gets involved
“What’s seemed crazy to us is this delta where MRFs don’t like glass because of the cost to deal with it, when consumers expect to be able to recycle it. If you take that away from them, it breaks their trust in the whole system,” says Croke, Closed Loop Fund vice president of external affairs.
“Glass is recyclable, but we need to increase its value to make it worthwhile for MRFs to invest in it,” she says.
So the investment fund started thinking about how to boost glass’ monetary worth. It’s been a daunting task as virgin material is cheaper and transporting waste glass is expensive. But the real headache is the issue of contamination, especially as single-stream systems expand and glass mixes with other wastes and breaks.
The contamination dilemma
There is equipment that can clean glass, but it’s a major investment for what would still typically be a low-return, especially now as MRFs ride out tough market conditions.
“We need to be sure contracts are written to incentivize MRFs to put out clean glass. We also need strong end markets, and that’s where Closed Loop focuses. If we can ensure robust, high-end markets and quality glass, the rest of the problems will work themselves out,” says Croke.
The solution will be region specific, and involve diversifying
There has been a focus on finding regional markets to reduce transportation and other operational costs. And efforts have turned to finding more uses of recycled glass beyond bottles, such as turning it into road aggregate, concrete and fiberglass.
Ultimately, says Croke, “We must improve contracts between cities and MRFs and contracts between MRFs and glass processors. Then we need to invest in diversifying end markets, so if one is not working there are other opportunities.”