The Glass Packaging Institute touts glass as “the trusted and proven packaging for health, taste and the environment.” The benefits associated with glass packaging are many… glass containers are nonporous and impermeable, and food and drinks that are sold in glass containers are safely protected. There is no change to the taste of products that are packaged in glass. And once glass containers are used, they can be recycled, resulting in significant environmental benefits and energy savings.
But despite all the good qualities of glass packaging, glass recycling is struggling. As glass recycling is analyzed, several communities with curbside recycling programs have recently dropped glass from the list of acceptable items.
So, what’s the problem with glass?
Glass has been a regular part of many curbside recycling programs since the 1990s. So why now is glass a problem? The fact is that glass has always been one of the lower valued commodities. Today, recycling managers are facing new pressure as commodity prices have dropped.
The problems begin with the collection process, where glass breaks when it is placed in collection vehicles. With single-stream programs, broken glass is mixed up with tons of other recyclables and is difficult to sort. Even with dual-stream recycling programs and drop-off centers where materials are collected separately, glass can be a problem. At recycling centers glass is hard on equipment, creating wear on conveyor belts, screens and other moving parts.
Quality issues are another concern of the recycling manager. As paper and cardboard mills become more stringent on quality, buyers of used fiber will pay significantly less for materials containing crushed glass.
The economics of glass recycling, high contamination rates and the limited outlets for recovered glass is causing recycling managers across the United States to reconsider glass in their recycling programs. Additionally, markets for glass are limited. Remember…when there is no market, there is no recycling.
In most cases, recycling centers have to pay to get rid of the glass they produce. Even if you are fortunate to have a viable glass outlet near your recycling center, you must still realize that glass is heavy and the cost of shipping glass is expensive. As a result, a number of towns and cities have eliminated glass from their curbside recycling programs.
The pressure to operate recycling centers in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner will continue. Recycling managers will continue to look for ways to trim costs and examine the cost benefits of various commodities.
The Glass Recycling Institute suggests that the ideal recycling program for glass is one which “results in color separated, contaminant-free recycled glass helps ensure that these materials are recycled into new glass containers.” The institute goes on to say, “While curbside collection of glass recyclables can generate high participation and large amounts of recyclables, drop-off and commercial collection programs often yield higher-quality container glass.” But recycling infrastructure is not easy to change and demands a lot of capital.
Recycling managers need to take an analytical look at every commodity in their recycling program and understand the economics associated with each item that is being collected, processed, transported and sold.
Moving forward many municipalities will be asking for and evaluating recycling programs with and without glass as a collected item.
Unquestionably, there are significant environmental benefits associated with recycling glass, including energy savings. However, environmental mangers know that glass tossed into the trash and sent to a landfill presents no risk to public health. Glass is inert and does not decompose. Glass generates no landfill gas and it does not produce any containments that need to be removed like leachate from the landfill.
Fixing the problem…
While glass will remain a useful packaging material, there is going to be increased scrutiny on the recycling side of the glass lifecycle. From a business standpoint, recyclers face many challenges with glass. First, glass breaks and it is difficult to sort at most recycling centers. Second, glass is hard on equipment, resulting in higher maintenance costs at recycling centers where glass is processed. Third, glass mixes with paper and cardboard and lowers the value of the fiber that is being sold or increases the risk of deductions at the mill for quality issues. Fourth, glass is heavy and expensive to transport. Fifth, the markets for glass are limited. In many markets there are no viable, long-term outlets for glass, and recycling centers have to pay to get rid of the materials that often end up being used as a beneficial use at a landfill.
Fixing the problem will not be easy. While the environmental benefits of recycling materials are clear, recycling mangers are more routinely focusing on the economics of recycling. If recycling a certain commodity is not cost effective and the consumer is unwilling to pay more for recycling, than we should expect to see materials like glass being dropped from more and more curbside programs. Glass manufactures should be concerned because of the potential consumer backlash against packaging products that are seen as non-recyclable.
Again, the fix will not be easy as recycling is coming to a crossroads and recycling managers, municipal managers and manufacturers will need to make hard decisions based on sound economics and the ability to move materials to viable, long-term markets.