Over 3,000 years before plastic usurped our soda pop, olive oil, and peanut butter containers, glass was as valuable as the items it held. Fast-forwarding to modern day, glass is no longer a marvel, yet it’s worth is not lost on us. Even as commercial glass has been largely relegated to beer, wine, and liquor bottles, American consumers have shown a thirst for its sustainability through recycling.
Why, then, are glass recycling programs being discontinued across the country?
The answer is both economic and process-related, and as we’ll cover below, the U.S. recycling system has made a material that’s incredibly easy to recycle substantially more difficult.
Glass Recycling Can Be Effective and Earth-friendly
Glass is an ideal recyclable material for both manufacturers and consumers.
On the production side, it’s manufactured with three natural ingredients—sand, limestone, and soda ash, plus an all-important fourth: recycled glass crushed into a granular state known as cullet. The recycled material can greatly reduce the need for virgin raw materials, as one kilogram of cullet replaces 1.2 kilograms of raw materials.
In contrast to plastic, modern glass bottles and jars are infinitely recyclable, with glass capable of withstanding endless crush-melt cycles without any loss in quality or purity.
The process of remaking recycled glass is environmentally friendly, too. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, substituting cullet for just 10% of glassmaking mix leads to lower CO2 emissions by 5%. And the EPA suggests that producing glass from used cullet requires 30% less energy than producing it with virgin materials.
On the consumer side, glass recycling is remarkably simple compared to plastic. While the seven numbered plastic “chasing arrow” symbols remain an enigma to the American public,
glass is more straightforward. Glass has three symbols: GL 70, GL 71, and GL 72. What’s ideal about these symbols is that clear glass (#70), green glass (#71), and brown glass (#72) are 100% recyclable.
That means—excluding kitchen and baking glassware, decorative objects, and window pane—all jars and bottles used for everyday food and beverage goods can be recycled.
The problem that has arisen is whether your hauler will still accept them.
Why is Glass Recycling Going Away?
U.S glass generation, across all products, reached 12.3 million tons in 2018, accounting for 4.2% of total municipal solid waste (MSW) production.
Only 3.1 million tons were recycled in 2018, with an official material-specific recycling rate of 31.3%. As for the rest, nearly 62% went to the landfill, where an estimated 28 billion glass bottles and jars are buried every year. For context, that’s enough to fill two Empire State Buildings top to bottom every three weeks. Plus, once in the landfill, glass bottles and jars can take somewhere between 4,000 and 1 million years to decompose (depending on the conditions).
Here’s perhaps the most shocking fact: Amid a supply shortage and realization that virgin glass may never be as ubiquitous as it once was, municipalities and businesses nationwide are suspending or completely folding glass recycling programs.
Why? The short answer is single-stream recycling, the widely adopted practice of placing all recyclable materials in the same receptacle before a specialized facility (called a MRF) attempts to unscramble the mix.
Put plainly, glass recycling is going away because of unfavorable economics that force the waste industry’s hand. And single-stream’s woes in making margins can be tied to three facts: 1.) Glass breaks under pressure. 2.) Glass is heavy. 3.) The United States is a large country.
The standard compactor truck that upends your dumpster or bin can compact waste with enough force to crush a pickup truck. Naturally, a glass bottle will break. In this regard, glass shards are a contaminant, lodging in cardboard, paper, and plastic material—effectively eliminating its own value for sale as well as that of the other materials.
Broken glass also endangers MRF workers and can outfox or jam the facility’s robust machinery.
Its weight is a detriment as well. Unlike thin plastic or airy cardboard, glass is heavy. Compactor trucks become burdened by the weight of too much glass, forcing them to take extra trips. That effectively hikes transportation costs as the two-miles-per-gallon trucks eat double and triple the fuel. Compounding this is the distance between a city’s MRF and a region’s cullet buyer—in some instances, it’s hundreds of miles.
So, when the economics don’t add up, traditional waste management services cut their losses… and their programs.
Alternate Options for Glass Recycling
If your glass service has been discontinued, or even if your business is determined to save more from the landfill, there are viable alternatives proven to give glass recycling a boost.
Perhaps the most obvious is a deviation from single-stream—one that, quite simply, adds more streams. Municipalities and businesses from San Francisco to Pennsylvania to New Hampshire have seen that with multiple material streams, they can keep recycling profitable by drastically reducing contamination. According to Glass Packaging Institute, only 40% of glass from single-stream recycling ends up being recycled into new products, while that number surpasses 90% for multi-stream.
RoadRunner Recycling’s own solution, called clean-stream recycling, ensures our partners’ glass, cardboard, aluminum, and more retain their value by keeping them separate.
Think of it as a great unbundling of single-stream recycling. The beauty of our technology, however, means that your business's service (point of contact, invoices, pickup schedule) stays in one single place.
While it may entail more effort on your end, another avenue glass can take is through permanent collection and mobile collection points offered locally. In this scenario, individuals and businesses collect and sort their own glass bottles and jars, then transport them to a designated drop-off. As proof of its efficacy, one county in Northern Virginia that recently made the switch to mobile collection zones saw a 137% year-over-year increase in glass recycling.
Related to drop-off centers, states with redemption sites for container deposit programs demonstrate the mutual benefit of keeping glass’s value intact.
[More from RoadRunner’s blog: Why Smarter Recycling is Like a Rewards Program]
To date, 10 states have “bottle bills”—laws that charge a refundable deposit on all single-use beverage bottles—and six more are considering them. The states that do have them see an average glass container recycling rate over 63% versus 24% for non-deposit states.
While legislation might be something in the future, turnkey solutions for glass recycling can be achieved in the short-term. Check with your municipality for permanent drop-off centers or collection events, seek out a large processor near you, or have your business get in touch with RoadRunner to discover a solution as revolutionary as glass was in 1500 B.C.