Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “High Costs Put Cracks in Glass Recycling.” The article laments the recent increase in costs to process glass in the United States and the devastating end result: municipalities are pulling glass out of their recycling programs altogether. This is happening despite the high demand for recycled glass cullet. Why?
When glass is collected with other materials, it breaks. It contaminates the money-making recyclables such as paper, lessening their marketability and threatening the potential revenues of a recycling program. Broken glass also will damage sorting equipment and increase worker compensation complaints along with insurance costs. To add insult to injury, the glass exiting these modern, mixed sorting systems is dirty and contains up to 50 percent non-glass material. This makes the glass nearly impossible for glass processors, like Ripple Glass or Strategic Materials, to recover. It’s gotten so bad that some in our industry are calling glass the “scourge” of recycling.
Municipalities are tired of their curbside recycling programs being negatively impacted by glass. The Mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania recently launched an advertising campaign announcing that “Glass is trash, paper is gold!” This campaign was designed to encourage residents to landfill glass instead of putting it in their recycling bin alongside paper, plastic and aluminum.
Our initial reaction to his campaign was disbelief. Glass isn’t trash! It’s perfectly recyclable! It’s in high demand even! Is he crazy?
Let’s try to see it from his perspective. Municipalities typically think that collecting glass mixed with other recyclables is a progressive option. It’s the most convenient option for residents. Mixing recyclable materials in one bin and collecting it with one truck saves municipalities significant money because it simplifies collections and truck routing. But, that’s where the benefits stop.
In addition to degrading the value of their other materials, municipalities are charged $10-40 per ton to recycle the “dirty glass” collected from their residents. Most programs rely on the revenue they receive from selling the collected materials and glass is a negative value to their programs. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand why the Mayor of Harrisburg is rallying against glass.
In 2004, Kansas City, Mo. launched its city-wide curbside recycling program without glass. Many residents were piqued, but the local hauler and processor, Deffenbaugh Industries, recognized that mixing glass with the other recyclable materials collected at the curb was not only bad for paper and plastic, it was bad for glass as well.
Ripple Glass launched in 2009, filling the gap by providing over 100 convenient glass drop-off locations throughout the city. Because Kansas City’s glass is collected separate from other recyclables, it’s clean and can be recovered at a high rate. Its value is maintained and nobody is charged a recycling fee. Our metropolitan area saves hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in landfill fees through this free program.
There are still municipalities in our area that accept glass mixed with other materials. Most of this “dirty glass” is downcycled or landfilled, unfortunately.
It’s rare we see a national publication address an issue that plagues the recycling industry and we were very impressed with the accuracy of the article. We just wish the article would have suggested an alternative system. Glass doesn’t belong mixed in a recycling bin with other materials.