The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the glass-packaging market was swift and remains ongoing — with changes to both supply and demand. In order to get a first-hand look at the effects, we interviewed Randy Burns, Chief Sustainability Officer for O-I Glass, Inc. (NYSE: OI), one of the world's leading manufacturers of packaging products.
Read on to hear his first-hand look at how the pandemic has affected glass manufacturing, recycling and what the future may hold.
Early on in the pandemic, glass collected for recycling took a big hit. Is that situation improving? Are bottle bill states, for example, resuming their programs?
Bottle bill states are in fact resuming their collection programs, which have increased the availability of collected glass. However, the industry has not returned to pre-pandemic glass-recycling levels. Bars and restaurants — large, centralized sources of glass scrap—are still subject to closures and remain at reduced capacity resulting from COVID-19 restrictions. And home consumption patterns differ significantly from on-premise consumption, resulting in changing collection patterns there as well. However, as redemption centers come back online, we are seeing increased collection through these programs. In all, about 80 percent of glass collection quantities have returned and are being recycled by O-I.
As the waste stream during COVID-19 has shifted more to residential from commercial, are individuals getting better at recycling glass?
There has been an expressed desire by consumers to “do better” and minimize impacts. However, this desire to do better does not always equate to overall sustainability. Consumers are faced with frequent, and significant, changes to their local recycling programs. It is challenging to determine what materials truly belong in the bin. This confusion results in a combination of consumers recycling what they hope they can and another contingency of consumers avoiding recycling completely. This combination of “wishcycling” and frustration results in smaller volumes of scrap with increased levels of contamination. This puts recycling at a crossroads. We are working closely with recycling coordinators, haulers, processors and regulatory groups to alleviate misinformation and demonstrate the increasing need for a steady supply of clean glass.
As some restaurants and bars have reopened, how has that stream changed for glass recycling?
These facilities are significant consumers, and recyclers, of products stored in glass. The struggles these operations have faced has been reflected in the dynamic levels of purchases and recycling in this area. Fortunately, products packaged in glass are shelf stable and can be held in stock to be ready as establishments are cleared for opening, or increased capacity. As the COVID pandemic is addressed and restrictions are lifted, their consumption and utilization patterns will approach normal. When this happens, we will expect to see normalized commercial recycling and a normalized flow of glass available for recycling.
There have been reports that drinking has increased during the pandemic; liquor, wine and beer sales have increased significantly. Has that helped the recycling stream?
Even while individualized consumption patterns may have changed, it decentralizes the consumption of the products packaged in glass. And, as the consumption is decentralized, it opens that package up to a variety of external factors. Individual consumption may extend the use phase of the glass packaging—meaning that the bottle may remain in the home much longer than on the shelves of a bar or restaurant. Another impact with decentralization of consumption patterns is the varying approaches to mitigating COVID impacts on waste haulers and recyclers.
Municipalities, haulers and processors are subject to many of the same health and safety restrictions as manufacturing. Therefore, a bottle in the home that might otherwise be recycled may inadvertently be diverted to a landfill in the interest of safety. And, as noted before, the distribution of consumption also distributes the volume of recycling collection, which presents challenges for collecting and processing recyclables. Therefore, the impact of the changes in these consumption patterns may not be completely realized for a time to come. However, as recycling returns to normal, and haulers resume normal service, we expect that consumers will want to recycle their glass packaging once they have consumed the contents.
Glass vials are in high demand due to their importance in producing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines. Can you talk about what the supply situation looks like at this point, and the outlook?
Industries from a wide variety of sectors have disrupted business as usual to prioritize the production, packaging, distribution and administration of the vaccine. These beneficial disruptions arise on the hopes of alleviating the volatile global conditions that have been faced by consumers and industries alike. And, in searching for solutions, a number of innovations and production changes have been enacted to facilitate the vaccine, including the increased production of pharmaceutical glass vials. With the extreme conditions these glass vials are produced to endure, they will create a new opportunity for capturing, and recycling, glass from this category.
By design and necessity, pharmaceutical glass has a significantly higher melting point than standard glass packaging. Therefore, it is important that the glass used in pharmaceutical applications is collected separately, in a closed-loop process for medical glass, and processed in accordance with health and safety requirements. Fortunately, these medical facilities have dedicated processes for collecting and processing glass in this industry.
How much of an impact does the rise of plastic beverage containers have on your business?
Packaging trends are very cyclical. We are fortunate that glass continually offers a sustainable option that showcases the product inside and enables optimal branding through labeling and shape. It holds a steady, reliable role in our customers’ lineups. Vital discussions about ending packaging waste and increasing overall sustainability have actually given rise to customers looking to glass to ensure end-of-life recycling and minimizing concerns about coatings and microplastics leaching into products. More recently, our customers are also looking to glass to bridge gaps in the supply chain as is seen with the shortage of aluminum cans.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future for glass and glass recycling?
Consumers and companies want to do the right thing. Having viable end-of-life scenarios that do not result in landfilling is an obligation to our society. This comes through viable recycling options and eliminating intentional confusion over which materials are actually recycled. Success in this area is spelled out through factual education and investment in viable collection and processing measures.
On America Recycles Day 2020, the EPA announced a national recycling goal of 50 percent by 2030. A vital component of this goal is to educate consumers and help them to recycle correctly and make informed choices in packaging. This national strategy will also invest in new sorting and separation techniques that will increase the quality of the recycling stream — making it more environmentally and economically friendly. These crucial steps will advance the use of sustainable packaging, like glass, and minimize our collective impact on the environment.