While numerous communities across the country have cut glass collection from their recycling programs over the last decade, rumors of glass recycling's demise appear to be exaggerated.
Glass recycling issues have been years in the making as material streams and markets change. Transitioning from early source-separated programs to single-stream recycling played a notable role. Trickle-down consequences from the recycling industry's overall state of flux in recent years also contributed. Yet, glass recyclers report a turnaround appears to be afoot.
In 2014 and 2015, Charleston, South Carolina; Charleston, West Virginia; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania were among the cities asking residents to stop putting glass in recycling bins. The main reasons cited were contamination, heavy material weight and high transport and processing costs. Unfriendly markets in which many processors began charging fees to accept glass, instead of the traditional model of them paying to receive it, also had a role.
A new wave of glass cuts occurred when communities and recyclers reconfigured their services in the tumultuous months following the 2018 implementation of China’s scrap import restrictions. Glass is not directly affected by these regulations, but in some cases it was caught up in the fallout because of broader recycling cost pressures. Hundreds of U.S. municipalities reworked their accepted materials lists, and in the process dozens cut glass from curbside collection: Volusia County and Port Orange, Florida; Prince William County, Arlington County and Fairfax County, Virginia; Clinton, North Carolina; and Tacoma and Ellensburg, Washington are among many more.
The Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC) formed in 2016 to work with companies across the supply chain to advance best practices in glass recycling processing, collection and collaboration, and to increase the amount of recycled glass available for reuse. GRC's 2020 survey shows that from 2017 to 2020, the number of public sector employees whose communities offered some type of curbside glass collection dropped from 79% to 61%. The number of survey responses from the public sector also dropped 23% during that time.
But now industry groups say the tide is turning and fewer cities are taking this step.
“We're definitely seeing changes to the trend from a couple years ago,” said Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI). “The interest in glass is strong and many communities are taking new steps to increase or expand recycling opportunities for glass.”
Despite the slowdown in the rate of municipalities dropping glass from their recycling programs, it is still happening. Tucson, Arizona, announced recently that glass will not be accepted curbside starting Feb. 1, but residents can bring their glass recyclables to drop-off sites. The city's Environmental Services Department will collect the glass, crush it and distribute it to the local transportation agency and other departments for reuse. The move is said to be motivated by MRF processing costs.
When cities do eliminate glass from curbside programs, they frequently face pushback from residents and calls to reinstate service or devise an alternative collection program. In GRC’s survey, 90% of public sector respondents said residents expect to recycle glass. Public feedback is a major reason municipalities explore other glass recycling options after eliminating the material from curbside.
Calls are broadening for creative and targeted solutions to make glass recycling work. Recyclers are focused on devising different collection methods catered to individual regions, reducing contamination, adding equipment investments and conducting public education programs.
Some of the nagging issues with glass are caused by its incorporation into a catch-all, single-stream curbside collection system. Alternative collection options have cropped up in many communities. Cities like Lake Worth, Florida, kept glass but transitioned to dual-stream collection.
The most commonly adopted solution to reinstate glass collection is one that Arlington, Fairfax and other counties in Northern Virginia established: drop-off sites. Ohio-based Rumpke Waste & Recycling has also been working with Midwestern communities it serves to create glass depots where citizens deposit containers; currently they work with three glass depots and another is in the works.
Drop-off sites are a strategy working in the Northeast as well, according to Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA). The region has struggled with glass since bottle manufacturer Ardagh Group closed its Massachusetts plant in 2018 and demand dropped.
NRRA and partners worked to establish a source-separated glass collection network in more than 100 Northeast communities. Participating municipalities can deliver their glass to consolidation sites, and some of the material is transported to a glass beneficiation plant in Canada. The crushed material is sent to companies in the U.S. for use in fiberglass insulation. The rest of the of material collected at consolidation sites is processed with NRRA's mobile glass crusher to be used in roads and other infrastructure projects.
"Many are smaller rural communities that would have a difficult time aggregating enough glass to make it feasible for a mobile glass crusher unit or to send the material to Canada on their own," Bissonnette said.
Misinformation is a significant barrier to improving glass recycling, sources say. Municipalities, the public and even recycling industry participants sometimes misunderstand glass recycling and its intricacies, going on to spread incorrect knowledge or take actions based on it.
Glass recyclers suggest that municipal leaders sometimes receive misleading information from contracted haulers or MRFs that want to stop handling glass. Processors and advocates want leaders to initiate discussions about glass challenges with industry before proceeding with decisions to eliminate or alter recycling.
“Community decision makers don’t always reach out to the glass processor in their area and ask them about the glass markets,” said Curt Bucey, executive vice president at glass processor Strategic Materials. “They should do due diligence to find out what's really happening.”
Those in the business cite specific misconceptions, such as glass having higher processing costs or no value. Bucey said Strategic's research on MRF operations and financials indicates glass can have a "substantially lower than average processing cost" compared to other commodities, in the right conditions.
MRF operators in certain regions indicate that has been the case for their companies.
"Our glass has good value in the market," said Andrea Rodriguez, director of U.S. recycling at FCC Environmental Services. The global company expanded into the U.S. a few years ago and recycles glass that flows through its MRF in Dallas and another MRF in Houston.
The sentiment is echoed by others who report that while glass in their area may not be as lucrative as certain commodities, the value has remained steady.
“Glass has had a very consistent value over time. The price has not been erratic, it's stable,” said Steve Sargent, director of recycling at Rumpke.
Another perception problem lies in citizens' awareness of China’s policies and the resulting fallout. They connect those issues to glass recycling challenges, when in fact nearly all glass recycled in the U.S. is domestic. Recovered glass rarely is exported overseas, or imported.
“Residents don't recognize that glass recycling is extremely local,” Bissonnette said. “Local” meaning the effort is not just domestic, but also happening on a micro scale at the regional and community levels.
“When residents hear on the radio or read in a newspaper that a community somewhere else is not recycling glass… some think it’s not being recycled at all and they better stop here, too,” she said. “The distinction is very hard for some residents to understand.”
That’s where education enters the equation, motivating recyclers and industry groups to significantly step up their outreach in recent years.
For example, NRRA released a "story map" that combines photos, videos and interactive maps to illustrate how 100 communities in the Northeast approach glass recycling. Processors and MRFs also report putting greater effort toward educational campaigns to help both citizens and municipal leaders understand the recycling process.
“Sometimes I find that city leaders think they need to worry where the closest glass manufacturer is rather than their closest processor,” said GPI's DeFife, describing another misconception glass recyclers say they're working to overcome.
FCC's Rodriguez cites another area of opportunity for education: when reintroducing glass in curbside collection systems where it had been pulled. "Just putting it back in requires a lot of education to citizens," she said. "In Houston, we have been slowly ramping up because glass has been out of the city program for some time."
While the number and depth of education efforts rises — including from municipalities, 54% of which reported in the GRC survey that they increased recycling education last year — there is room for more work.
"Probably all of us need to do a better job of educating on glass," Bucey said.
Keep it clean and close
Glass recyclers and trade groups stress that material quality matters. Just as with other commodities, tough financial times have brought the importance of producing material with low contamination rates to the forefront. Claims abounded in the last decade that there is no market for glass, however the truth is “there is plenty of market for quality material,” said Jim Nordmeyer, vice president of global sustainability at O-I Glass, which is a leadership member of the Glass Recycling Coalition.
Greater emphasis on clean material underscores another point: Not all sources of recovered glass are created equal.
“There is plenty of MRF glass out there, but not all glass processors want MRF glass because it can be more difficult to clean out all the contaminants,” Bissonnette said. The Canadian beneficiation facility her organization partners with “will take all the source-separated glass NRRA can provide, but they are very selective about when they will take it from single-stream systems, because it requires a considerable amount more effort for them to clean that glass to their standards.”
The appetite for less contaminated material is a key reason glass collected through programs in bottle bill states maintains its desirability and why drop-off sites are gaining popularity. Source-separated glass from a depot generally contains fewer contaminants than single-stream glass and is of higher value.
More MRFs are getting on board with infrastructure upgrades for a variety of reasons, but especially to help fix the contamination problem. Some — especially smaller operations that previously resisted the hefty capital investments — now believe that advanced equipment provides adequate return on investment because it allows them to generate a cleaner, higher-value downstream product. Upgrades tend to center on better glass separation early on the line — to prevent other materials from becoming contaminated — and washing later in the process.
Rumpke built a glass beneficiation plant in Dayton, Ohio, in 2004, and made nearly $3.5 million in upgrades to it in 2011. Three optical scanners were among the most critical additions because “the optical technology allowed us to get into the container market… to produce a very good quality container glass,” Sargent said. About 90% of Rumpke's material comes from single-stream programs and would be less marketable without the enhanced processing.
Sargent also underscored glass recycling's regional nature in explaining that the Ohio beneficiation facility works in part because Rumpke serves the Midwest, which has ample demand from the large number of regional glass end users — specifically, glass packaging manufacturers. Illinois and Indiana present especially significant opportunities, he said.
The Glass Recycling Coalition noted progress on cleaning up the glass recycling stream by recently awarding its first-ever gold-level MRF Glass Certification to three Rumpke and two Sims Municipal Recycling MRFs and beneficiation facilities. The two other MRF operators already awarded glass certification — Balcones Resources and Sedona Recycles — are silver level recipients.
Obtaining cleaner glass on the front end keeps overall costs down, which offsets high transportation costs resulting from glass' heavy weight by volume. Transportation remains an outsized issue compared to other commodities, sources say. But the extra budgetary wiggle room achieved by procuring cleaner material from the start enables them to travel farther to pick up glass.
"It is true that there are issues with distances to markets for glass that are different than distances for other commodities," DeFife said. “Quality matters for how far glass will travel: Good quality glass travels further than poor quality."
Transportation remains a persistent glass obstacle, but it is not insurmountable, sources say. Recyclers generally report pulling material from up to a 200-300 mile radius. The economics tend to degrade when the distance exceeds that mark, they say, although a few will collect from up to 500-600 miles away.
All things considered, operating an effective and profitable glass recycling business under modern conditions is not easy. "It can be done, but it takes a commitment," Sargent said. For Rumpke, part of that motivation is also because the material is so common and recycling it has a notable environmental effect.
"It's one of the lower value materials that we handle and process, but we think it's important because it makes up such a large percentage of our recycling stream by weight," said Sargent.
For all the changes in glass recycling over the years, and talk of a potential decline or resurgence, longtime industry observers view glass as a key fixture in the system and one that people widely expect to be able to recycle.
“[When] you go back to the original curbside multi-material programs, it was glass bottles, newspapers and metal cans and that was it," said Chaz Miller, an independent consultant and Waste360 columnist whose career includes time at the National Waste & Recycling Association. “As long as there are tonnage requirements for recycling rates, there will be glass in recycling. Because recycling rates are all about tons."
Miller noted the "biggest problem" for glass is an evergreen one: the fact that its value may be lower in certain regions and that it may require some additional innovation to manage properly in a single-stream processing setup. In terms of value, he also pointed out how some traditional uses for glass have lost market share over the years — such as for baby food jars, soft drinks and certain types of beer. In some cases, the low cost of raw materials for virgin glass may also make recycled content less competitive. Lower potential volumes of available glass in bottle bill states may also play a role in whether MRFs choose to invest in the technology to manage it most effectively.
At the same time, he also sees glass getting a potential boost from growing anti-plastic sentiments among consumers and has noted greater efforts by the glass recycling sector to expand activity in recent years.
“They’ve definitely been more proactive, there’s no dispute about that," said Miller.
2019 was widely considered a landmark year for sustainability commitments by brands and municipalities, with a focus on recyclability, and the momentum continued into 2020 despite the pandemic. Sources say there’s no turning back, and calls for more products that are recyclable and contain recycled content only will intensify.
“There's a high interest for brands to try to get more recycled content,” Strategic's Bucey said in December. “I'm spending more time with brands this year than I have in most of the previous years combined.”
That’s seen as good news for glass because it is heralded as one of the most easily and infinitely recycled materials. The increased focus on environmental and sustainability goals from consumers and brands is also prompting renewed interest in a flagship circular economy solution: refillable containers.
“We are seeing a resurgence of interest in returnable, refillable containers,” Nordmeyer said. “A refillable container is absolutely the most sustainable packaging container you can have. In Canada, they refill bottles an average of 15 times, in South America they refill about 30 to 40 times and in Europe about 40 to 50 times.”
On the non-refillable side, new bottle and container manufacturing remains a leading — and growing — end market for processed glass, as does fiberglass insulation. Two-thirds of the product that comes out of Rumpke’s Ohio plant goes to fiberglass manufacturing and one-third to bottle manufacturing. Demand is higher for both than it was two years ago, Sargent said. Those are Strategic Materials' main markets, too.
“Our core customers — the container industry and the fiberglass industry — both are looking for more material throughout the United States… and today they’re not getting what they would like,” Bucey said. “On top of that, there are new segments that are growing.”
In December, Arglass Yamamura also began firing up the furnaces at its new bottle manufacturing plant in Georgia. Industry participants express hope that Arglass could become a new end user and might even represent the beginning of more end users emerging as demand increases for post-consumer content.
Another segment with growth potential is abrasives for sandblasting, which Strategic Materials manufactures from byproducts that can’t be used in other products. The foam glass market also holds promise. As seen with NRRA's program, glass aggregate for roads, civil engineering projects and construction maintains its own notable market presence.
Still, a lingering challenge for glass — especially as demand increases — is the lack of supply. Consequences remain from the dozens of communities that altered their recycling programs and told their residents to throw glass in the trash instead of recycling it, but the global pandemic has also played a role.
Some players in the recycled glass supply chain acutely experienced this dip in supply, driven in part by bottle bill states suspending program enforcement early in the pandemic as well as reduced commercial activity at restaurants, bars and events like conventions. Nordmeyer noted volumes haven't fully come back from a "significant drop" in the early months and there have been additional costs to source material.
Yet many MRFs saw their glass volumes increase to some degree as more people worked from home and deposited containers curbside. Meantime, demand for recycled glass increased during the pandemic, especially as used beverage cans were in short supply and manufacturers sought alternative container options.
"All manufacturing, including glass, had to make adjustments on what materials were available and where it was needed the most. It required materials to be redirected, perhaps to where is wasn't in the past... because that subset of U.S. needed it or the supply chain had been reconfigured," Nordmeyer said.
Glass recyclers report a desire to work through the pandemic and longer-running issues in collaboration with municipalities, but say advance communication is crucial.
"The demand for glass is strong. There are weak links in the supply chain that we want to work to address. But we can only do it if there is a conversation before decisions are made," DeFife of GPI said. "I think we're doing overall better at the end of 2020 than we were doing two to three years ago. I definitely feel our work, our education, is paying off.”
Additional reporting by Cole Rosengren