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

Shutterstock/pixinoo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

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.

NEXT STORY: New York City Reckless Drivers Could Face Mandatory Safe Driving Class

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.