Glass containers comprise more than 20 percent of curbside recycling in single-family households by tonnage, according to The Recycling Partnership’s “2020 State of Curbside Report.” Consumers expect to be able to recycle glass containers; yet, in the past five years, glass has been targeted for removal from recycling programs.
In response, the Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC), Ann Arbor, Michigan, has worked with communities and the industry to keep glass a part of programs.
In late 2016, GRC formed to unite members throughout the glass recycling value chain to build regional opportunities to grow end-market demand for recycled glass. The collaborative focuses on educating communities, consumers, material recovery facilities (MRFs) and brands on glass recycling opportunities and challenging real and perceived barriers to glass recycling success.
End market opportunities
Despite nearly 130 domestic markets, including glass containers, fiberglass, building aggregates and other uses, glass recovery at North American MRFs has become a casualty in the era of National Sword export restrictions and rising quality standards for recovered fiber grades.
“As one of the world’s largest distilled spirits companies, glass packaging represented 83 percent of Diageo’s total packaging by weight in 2019,” says Richard Hoch, senior manager of packaging and technology at London-based Diageo and a member of the GRC Leadership Committee. “Getting good, clean recycled glass back into its bottles is essential for Diageo to meet sustainability goals related to recycled content for our brands.”
End markets need a consistent supply of quality recycled glass. GRC recommends ways to increase market opportunities in the areas of glass cleanup, alternative collection and transportation.
Clean glass means high-quality glass
“With proper methods or a glass cleanup system, MRFs can provide good quality glass to us—and many do today,” says Laura Hennemann, vice president of marketing at Strategic Materials Inc., a cullet producer headquartered in Houston.
GRC features best practices for MRF sorting and glass cleanup on its website. Removing glass at the start of the sorting process leads to several advantages: Glass does not run through the entire system, which reduces equipment maintenance; sorting of other materials improves; no labor is required; and glass value increases as contamination decreases.
“These best practices are critical to the long-term recycling success for all materials in single-stream, curbside collection,” Hennemann says.
The GRC MRF Glass Certification program was launched in late 2019 to recognize effective glass recycling programs. The free certification program is open to MRFs, which are evaluated based on current infrastructure and glass purity as measured by an independent committee. They can attain gold, silver and bronze certification levels.
Balcones Resources, headquartered in Austin, Texas, is one of the first two recipients of the certification. Its Austin MRF was awarded a silver certification after submitting its application, photos of test audits and glass capture data.
Brent Perdue, general manager of Balcones’ Austin MRF, says, “If you take some extra steps to clean glass and maintain your equipment, recycling glass is an opportunity and creates a competitive advantage in the marketplace.”
Balcones’ Austin MRF has been in operation for more than eight years and processes nearly 50,000 pounds of recyclables per hour.
Sedona Recycles, a nonprofit MRF in Arizona, also received silver-level certification. Glass makes up approximately 25 percent of the 7 million pounds of recyclables Sedona Recycles processes each year. Glass is collected separately by color and somewhat crushed by hand, and Sedona Recycles can consistently market its clean glass.
Certified MRFs are spotlighted on the GRC’s glass market map (see map above), making it easy for cullet buyers to see sources for quality cullet.
While some communities have stopped collecting glass for recycling, several others have opted to boost their glass recycling drop-off programs in creative ways.
In North Carolina, Orange County Solid Waste Management enacted a regional project, Glass On The Side (GOTS), to segregate glass bottles and jars for recycling collected along commercial routes and staffed waste and recycling centers. Program expansion to the unstaffed drop-off sites it operates is pending. This regional effort includes glass from drop-off sites in neighboring Alamance and Durham counties. Orange County worked with the GRC and the North Carolina Division of Environmental Assistance and the customer service branch of the Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) to provide funding for its glass-only containers and related infrastructure at the multimaterial drop-off center.
“We were so grateful to partner with GRC and the NCDEQ for this innovative program,” says Robert Williams, solid waste management director for Orange County. “The grant funds enabled us to create this multicounty cooperative effort to recycle more glass.”
The combined programs resulted in 250,000 pounds of glass collected between November 2019 and March 31.
A regionally led and funded campaign in northern Virginia called the Purple Can Club promotes a glass-only collection program using centralized collection points equipped with purple roll-offs in the cities of Alexandria and Arlington and the counties of Prince William and Fairfax. The glass is taken to Fairfax County for processing into aggregates for use in construction projects or to downstream glass recyclers for processing into furnace-ready cullet and other products. In its first year, 9.1 million pounds of glass were collected.
Some communities with limited curbside glass collection options feature pop-up collection events such as those spearheaded by Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC). In 2019, PRC partnered with 22 municipalities to host 27 glass-only collection events. An estimated 10,000 people attended the five-hour events last year, collecting more than 200 tons of container glass in the Greater Pittsburgh area. PRC teamed with O-I Glass and Cap Glass on the venture.
MRFs maximize glass markets
Some MRFs have added on-site beneficiation or glass cleaning and separation and explored transportation methods.
Cal Tigchelaar, president of Chicago- based Resource Management Cos. (RMC), says, “From an economic standpoint, we consider glass processing as a core part of our operation as a MRF.”
RMC added a glass beneficiation system to its MRF that ships cullet via rail to markets outside of the Midwest.
Sims Municipal Recycling’s New Jersey MRF, with an on-site glass beneficiation component, cleans and sells cullet directly to furnaces. The facility can ship by rail and uses barges and trucks to extend the market reach for its glass.
Cincinnati-headquartered Rumpke Waste & Recycling runs a state-of-the-art glass recycling beneficiation plant in Dayton, Ohio. The plant produces glass for insulation and bottle manufacturing in Ohio and Indiana, supporting an estimated 1,000 jobs.
Glass recycling opportunities are growing.
“I’m proud of the work the GRC has done creating resources and providing support to communities, businesses and markets,” Hoch of Diageo adds.
With its help, GRC says communities can make well-informed decisions, learn from best practices, use resources to keep glass in their recycling programs and recover quality glass.