Cities and Towns are Abandoning Glass Recycling. Can It Be Saved?

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Glass is highly recyclable, but collection of the material through single-stream recycling programs is falling out of favor in many cities because of contamination problems and high costs.

About 81% of recycling programs in the United States offer glass collection options, according to the Glass Recycling Foundation, giving residents a sustainable way to dispose of beer bottles, pickle jars and other containers.

But with the costs of recycling programs steadily rising, local government leaders are increasingly reconsidering the feasibility of curbside glass collection, noting how expensive it is to transport due to its weight. 

While some cities and counties have simply started throwing away glass collected through recycling programs, others are banding together to find alternatives or absorbing the costs in order to keep programs going.

Glass is highly recyclable, said Scott Mouw, senior director of research and strategy at the Recycling Partnership.

“It is one of the most circular materials you can get,” he said. “A glass bottle can go back into a glass bottle hundreds of times.”

But the demand for glass can vary widely from one community to the next, and the price to ship glass to a processing facility located a significant distance away can quickly make it too much of a burden.

One Maryland official described the cost-benefit conundrum local refuse departments face during a congressional hearing this month on the state of recycling programs. The cost to recycle all materials collected averages about $75 a ton in Montgomery County, Maryland, said Adam Ortiz, the director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection. But the return the county gets on recycling glass products ranges from $18 a ton for clear glass to $10 a ton for mixed glass.

“The glass issue isn’t necessarily about the recyclability of glass, it’s about the economics of glass,” Ortiz told a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. “It’s a huge economic loser for us. In our jurisdiction and others, we continue to do it because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

But not all cities or counties are able to sustain such efforts.

In Baltimore County, Maryland, residents were shocked to learn this month that the county has not been recycling glass it collected through a single-stream recycling program for approximately seven years—despite listing glass as recyclable on county websites.

Citing difficulties finding a market for the county’s glass and technical difficulties with processing that contributed to contamination of other recyclable materials, the Department of Public Works discontinued the glass program in 2013, the Baltimore Sun reported.

“It has become harder and harder to find a market" for recycled glass, Steve Lafferty, the county sustainability officer, told the Sun.

There’s plenty of glass that could be collected through local recycling programs, but much of it, like other recyclables, ends up in landfills. Only about 11.9 million of the 37 millions tons of recyclable materials that single-family households in the United States dispose of each year are captured through curbside recycling systems, according to the Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling. Glass containers make up about 20% of all recyclables—an estimated 7.6 million tons of glass each year.

The feasibility of recycling glass can vary widely from region to region, often depending on the quality of cleaning and sorting equipment operated by local material recovery facilities, or MRFs, said Mouw, of the Recycling Partnership, an industry-backed nonprofit.

For example, high levels of contamination among glass collected in Fairfax County, Virginia meant for years that all the bottles collected there were destined for the dump.

Single-stream recycling collection made it difficult to prevent broken glass from contaminating other materials, meanwhile shredded paper and other small particulates ended up in collected glass, said Eric Forbes, the director of engineering and environmental compliance for the county’s solid waste management program.

Last year, the county partnered with three neighboring jurisdictions in northern Virginia to devise a solution. They abandoned curbside glass collection altogether, instead directing residents to bring recyclables to 26 glass-only drop-off points across the region.

The “Purple Can Club” program has reduced the amount of glass collected curbside, and in turn the amount of money the county has to pay to haul the heavy containers to a processing facility. In 2014, about 20% of the material that Fairfax County collected through curbside recycling programs was glass. Today, that figure is about 4.5%, Forbes said.

“Glass is heavy and we are seeing a decline in the single stream in terms of what we have to pay for as a county,” he said.

It’s still too early to say whether the program will result in cost savings for the county, Forbes said, noting that Fairfax has not yet revised some of its transport contracts and had to spend money for the glass collection bins. But it’s showing promise. About 5 million pounds of glass have been collected across the region at the glass-only drop off sites since the program launched in April 2019.

Mouw warned that there is a tradeoff for local governments that adopt this kind of program.

“If you do a drop off situation, you get much cleaner glass but you get much less glass,” he said. “Fewer people are willing to drive to a drop off center.”

For Fairfax County, however, the new initiative has enabled the county to reuse collected glass in two new ways, Forbes said. First, the county has its own pulverizing machine, which can turn glass into pellets or sand aggregate used in public works projects. Second, the county is now able to partner with a private company, Strategic Materials, which has the capability to clean and process the glass and make it into new glass products. 

For other localities struggling with the cost of recycling programs, Forbes said removing glass from single-stream collections can help make existing programs more sustainable. Once glass it out of the mix, he suggested that municipalities can look for other ways to collect and reuse glass.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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