The End of Glass Recycling in US

The End of Glass Recycling in US

Glass is out as a recyclable, and it's everybody's fault.


Since the first of the year, Republic Services, the recycling contractor for Edmond, Norman and Midwest City, has rejected glass and certain plastics, and people have been encouraged not to put them in their recycling bins.

“The changes are being made by Republic in response to major shifts in the recycling industry over the past two years. At this point, the carbon footprint to collect, transport and recycle glass now exceeds the benefit of recycling it, so it is no longer environmentally responsible to recycle glass. For plastics #3 through #7, there is no longer a market for the product, so there is no way to responsibly recycle it,” the city of Edmond said.

Those sound like insurmountable obstacles: “major shifts” in recycling in general, “no longer a market” for those plastics, “no longer environmentally responsible” to reuse glass.

In case you miss the point, and to milk the metaphor, just understand that glass recycling has stumbled over its own “carbon footprint.” (Carbon footprint: “the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular person, group, etc.”)

The differences in plastics are beyond me. But glass? Not worth recycling? How can that be?

Here’s how, or mostly how: It’s because we don’t separate our recyclables at home, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth to separate out glass after they’re collected.

“U.S. municipalities manage residential recycling primarily via single-stream curbside collection. Single-stream means residents use their recycling bins to comingle glass with aluminum and steel cans, various types of plastic, newsprint, junk mail, cardboard, and other paper products,” Chemical & Engineering News explained a year ago in an article headlined “Why glass recycling in the U.S. is broken,” by Mitch Jacoby.

Here’s what has to happen then, on the collection end, to get to the waste glass so it can be turned into furnace-ready recycled glass, called cullet:

“To start the sorting process, front-end loaders dump huge piles of single-stream recyclables onto conveyor belts. Trained operators manually remove scrap metal, textiles, hoses, and other materials that never belonged in the recycling bin and can damage sorting equipment. Next, automated separators called star screens, together with powerful air jets, remove cardboard and paper, while magnets pull out iron-containing materials. After several more separation steps, a device known as a glass-breaking screen removes most of the glass from the single-stream load so it can be sent to cullet suppliers, who clean it and make it furnace ready for glass manufacturers.”

If we did that at home — if everybody did that at home, in Edmond, Norman, Midwest City and everywhere else from sea to shining sea — there might still be a market for recyclable glass.

“Multistream recycling, which is a far less common approach in the U.S., is simpler on the processing end. In these programs, consumers separate glass from other recyclables, depositing them in glass-only collection bins,” Chemical & Engineering News explained. “This type of collection requires a high level of consumer education and is considerably more expensive than single-stream collection.

“But glass from multistream collection is much cleaner than what comes out of the single-stream supply. Multistream glass typically bypasses materials recovery facilities and goes directly to cullet processors. Because of the difference in the quality of glass from the two streams, just 40% of glass from single-stream collection ends up being recycled into new products, compared with about 90% of glass from multistream systems.”

Why stick with single-steam recycling then? It’s complicated, of course, but the main reason is cost.

“Most municipalities in the U.S. stick with single stream because the collection costs are lower than those with multistream systems. To switch to multistream systems, these municipalities would need to introduce taxes or fees to meet the higher collection and handling costs. And most municipalities are reluctant to do so,” according to the Chemical & Engineering News article, available here:

Nobody is looking for new taxes or fees.



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Glass recycling market in U.S. is shattered


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