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Re: [greenyes] This American Life
Susan calls our attention to negative comments about glass recycling aired on a recent NPR broadcast.

I have been monitoring and participating in discussions of glass recycling on this list for several years. Every time the topic comes up there is a flurry of discussion but there has never been a truce called between those who think glass recycling "doesn't make that big of a difference" and those who don't want to push glass "off the bus".

Here, to get the ball rolling again, are my politically-incorrect thoughts on the subject. I look forward to your rejoinders!

Helen Spiegelman
Vancouver, BC (CANADA)

The glass crisis

Earnestly as the environmentalists believe that recycling is the right thing to do, it?s troubling to see what?s going on with glass.
Glass bottles and jars have always been top priority candidates for recycling. Nearly 12 million tons of this material is used in packaging each year in the United States. Because of their old-fashioned green image, glass bottles are most likely to be used for premium drinks that are favored by environmentalists. You won?t see craft beers and organic fruit juices in plastic or aluminum containers. But to the dismay of devoted recyclers, a growing number of cities are quietly dropping glass from their curbside recycling programs.
The challenge in glass recycling is the strict quality requirements of container manufacturers. To be used in manufacturing, recycled glass must be kept color-separated (you can?t make a clear jar out of a green bottle). The glass must also be kept free of other kinds of materials like stones, metal and even the wrong kind of glass -- window glass and drinking glasses cannot be recycled with jars and bottles. Because of the nature of glass, even the smallest imperfection can cause consumer safety risks (remember the exploding pop bottles in the early 1980s?) The industry?s quality requirements are so strict that even small amounts of contamination have resulted in rejection of entire shipments of recycled glass.
In most curbside recycling programs glass is not handled carefully enough to meet these quality standards. Typically, recycling crews dump glass bottles and jars from the Blue Box into the truck with all the other containers. (Alternatively, glass is set out at the curb in a Blue Bag along with paper and other materials and the bags are stuffed into a packer truck that crushes them under pressure to conserve space.) At the end of the trip, the recycled materials are tipped from the truck onto a concrete floor, pushed around with a piece of motorized heavy equipment and jostled up a conveyor belt onto a vibrating picking line. Needless to say, very little glass remains in a condition fit for manufacturing into new glass bottles and jars. Also, abrasive glass shards are a ?costly nightmare? for conveyor maintenance at recycling facilities.
Why then do cities and towns handle glass so carelessly? Why can?t they separate it out from other materials so it can be used by glass manufacturers? The reason is cost. There are a handful of cities and towns that do take pains to achieve the quality standards set by manufacturers, but their rewards are scant. The city of Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, pays $60 - $70 per ton to sort its recycled glass at a Materials Recovery Facility. The most valuable glass (clear and brown) sells for less than $15 per ton and the lower grades (green and mixed color) have negative values ranging from minus $6.40 to minus $15.40 per ton. Thus in a typical month, Madison collects 280 tons of glass and spends nearly $20,000 in processing fees to earn less than $2,000 in revenues (source: John Reindl: personal communication).
Despite the losing economics most cities are loath to stop collecting glass for two reasons. The first is citizen pressure: people want to recycle their glass bottles and jars because it?s the right thing to do.
The second reason cities and towns include glass is their recycling programs is mandates from senior governments. Cities in several US states including California face fines if they fail to achieve recycling targets set by the state. Because glass is so heavy it makes a significant contribution to the city?s recycling rate. Some city recycling managers admit ruefully that they could not reach their recycling targets without collecting glass even though they admit it?s a money loser (Susan Young: personal communication).
Because glass manufacturers won?t take below-spec glass, cities and towns have sought out other recycling markets for the glass they collect. Local construction companies will sometimes accept loads of glass and use the material as a gravel substitute in perimeter drains. Less commonly, glass is crushed with special equipment (at additional cost) and used in place of sand in the production of concrete (although there are concerns that a chemical reaction between the silica in glass and the alkali in cement may cause failure of the concrete over time - see:
These alternative glass ?markets? typically don?t pay for the glass they accept, even to cover the cost of delivery.
But surely there are environmental benefits that outweigh the cost and justify glass recycling benefits such as landfill conservation, energy conservation, and pollution reduction. Alas, even here the facts are discouraging.
We cannot justify glass recycling as a solution to the landfill problem. For one thing glass doesn?t take up much space in landfills. By weight, glass bottles and jars constitute barely 6% of the total municipal waste sent to landfills and incinerators. But when measured by volume (landfills don?t get heavy, they get fat) glass comes in at around 1.5%. This is because glass is denser and so it takes up less space, per ton, than other materials in the landfill. (Needless to say, glass is not put to good use in a waste incinerator.)
[show pie charts of glass in Municipal Waste 5% by volume, 1.4% by weight) source: US EPA]
But more importantly from a landfill perspective glass is completely inert. Unlike many other products in our waste glass poses no environmental threat in a landfill. Landfill experts like Peter Anderson frequently point out that yard trimmings (sometimes called ?green waste?) produce the powerful greenhouse gas methane when they decompose and are therefore a much bigger problem in landfills than glass. The benefits from recycling glass are ?upstream? conservation of resources during the products? manufacture -- or are they?
Looking at energy conservation from recycling glass, the benefits are not straightforward. Even in the increasingly rare best-case scenario where glass bottles are sold to manufacturers to be made back into containers, the energy savings are not as significant as for other materials. For every 10% of recycled glass that is incorporated into a batch of glass, the energy savings are only in the range of 2 3% (even glass takes a lot of energy to melt). Thus a bottle with 25% recycled content (the average for batches that contain recycled content) realizes an energy savings of less than 10%. Even if a bottle were to be made with 100% recycled content, the energy savings from using recycled glass would amount to only 30%. By comparison, recycling newspaper is said to reduce the energy consumption by 45%, PET plastic by 57%, steel cans by 61%, and aluminum cans by as much as 95% compared to using so-called ?virgin? materials.
Plus, when we calculate the energy savings from recycling glass we have to account for the energy used to ship the heavy load of used glass from the city where it is collected to the glass factory where it is recycled. Glass can apparently be shipped no more than 240 miles by truck or 1000 miles by rail before the energy savings from recycling are wiped out. There are 55 glass container-manufacturing plants in the US. They are strategically located close to the facilities where food products are packaged, the better to avoid unnecessary transportation costs for the food industry. These plants are mainly concentrated in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and California, making many communities well outside the 240-mile shipping limit.
There is a growing market for recycled glass in fiberglass manufacturing because this process can use mixed color glass. But there are only 40 fiberglass plants in the US and long-distance shipping costs far exceed the price paid for recycled material, not to mention reducing the energy savings benefits.
When cities and towns give their recycled glass to local construction companies, it saves on shipping costs. But of course every bottle taken out of the system to be used in construction must be replaced. Cities and towns justify ?recycling? glass bottles into gravel by pointing out that it reduces the demand for virgin gravel. Gravel mining is indeed a destructive process, but substituting glass for gravel makes hardly a dent. If every shard of used container glass generated in the United States were successfully collected up and used as gravel substitute, this would displace less than one half of one percent of the gravel that is mined from quarries and riverbeds each year. Would these savings in gravel consumption compensate for the write-off on the 83 trillion BTUs of energy that was spent to make the bottles and jars from sand in the first place. Energy cannot be recycled.
How about pollution? The pollution savings from recycling glass are significant, assigned a dollar value in the range of $18 to $68 per ton (Jeff Morris: email communication relating to Triangle Institute's Decision Support Tool costing model). These figures are conservative because they account for only 29 pollutants and ignore a wide range of environmental impacts. But more importantly, these savings can only be realized when glass is recycled back into glass containers. The prevailing practice of recycling curbside glass into gravel or concrete leaves the environmental costs mounting up as new glass bottles are manufactured to replace ones that have left the system.
Some cities and towns weigh the costs and benefits of collecting glass and feel compelled to make tough decisions. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, trying to balance the budget after September 11, was told that the city could save $56 million each year if it dropped glass, plastic, and metal containers from its recycling program and focused instead entirely on recycling paper products. An audit of New York City?s recycling program found that only 3% of glass collected by the City was actually recycled as glass. Another 30% was crushed and used as landfill cover, and the remaining two-thirds of glass collected was simply disposed of in landfills.
New York City eliminated glass from its recycling program. However the savings were less than expected, eaten up by rising landfill prices?. What?s a city to do?
[NOTE: this is from a book manuscript I am working on that makes the case that cities and towns should stop cleaning up after the Throwaway Society and call for legislation requiring the food industry to recycle its own glass containers...]

At 12:45 PM 11/03/2003 -0600, Susan Hubbard wrote:
Dear Recyclers,

The Public Radio Broadcast last night of This American Life surprisingly
slammed glass recycling and confirmed "through many expert opinions"  .
there are plenty of landfills." and ". we shouldn't feel bad about
throwing away glass." They then interviewed Richard Denison of the
Environmental Defense, formerly EDF and they must have surgically
removed this one quote from his whole interview to get this one terribly
unfortunate sentence, something about how "although recycling glass
saves energy it just doesn't make that big of a difference in terms of
energy saved through the manufacturing process.."
Then it trailed off with Denison saying he hoped that folks still
recycled their glass.

A report that Richard Denison wrote for EDF in 1996 "Environmental
Life-Cycle Comparisons of Recycling, Landfilling and Incineration states
otherwise. In his analysis of four national studies that compared the
environmental basis of recycling (DOE, Tellus Inst., Sound Resource
Management Group (SRMG) and Franklin & Assoc. for Keep Am. Beautiful),
recycling a ton of glass saves between 1.2 and 2.8 million Btu's
compared to landfilling or incineration. The reuse of glass bottles
isn't in the analysis.

SRMG since that time has done much more work in the analysis of glass
recycling benefits and many of those pieces have been posted to this
list. I am copying "This American Life" on this email. Perhaps we could
all email them with information about glass recycling since they
sincerely sounded concerned about the benefits of recycling in general
and glass recycling especially.

Here are some of their email addresses: web@no.address
radio@no.address      <mailto:kagosta@no.address> kagosta@no.address

And here is their website
And here is their address:
This American Life WBEZ Radio
Navy Pier
848 East Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
Susan Hubbard
President/ Chief Executive Officer
Eureka Recycling
624 Selby Ave.
Saint Paul, MN 55104
Email: susanh@no.address
Visit our WEBSITE!
Eureka Recycling is a nonprofit organization. Our mission is to reduce
waste today through innovative resource management and to reach a
waste-free tomorrow by demonstrating that waste is preventable not

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