Over the past year, glass recycling advocates saw a glimmer of hope as fewer communities eliminated glass from their recycling programs than had done so recently. Now work is underway in some areas to not just stop the cuts but to reintroduce the material into programs. Many of those efforts originated at the local level with creative solutions to promote glass recycling while boosting its value through source separation.
“We’ve seen a dramatic change in communities dropping glass,” said Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute. “We're getting glass back in many different areas, and we are doing even better at initiating new ways of collecting it.”
About 3.1 million tons of glass containers were recycled in the United States in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, for a recycling rate of 31.3%, according to the U.S. EPA. The agency arrives at its numbers by combining data from groups such as GPI and state environmental agencies. The glass container industry aims to boost that recycling rate to 50% by 2030, according to GPI's 10-year road map.
Tonnage is still down from pre-pandemic numbers, but GPI notes a resurgence in communities requesting assistance with getting back into glass recycling and producing an even-higher-quality, cleaner glass stream.
"It's been a pretty easy process of recruitment for us to get more cities on board and more businesses participating as well," said Piercyn Charbonneau, commercial program manager at Ripple Glass, a Kansas City, Missouri-based recycling operation founded in 2009. Ripple's original drop-off program continues to expand, and it launched a curbside collection program last year.
"More and more cities outside of the Kansas City metro [area] reach out to us to see how they can duplicate our programs," Charbonneau said.
Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Laconia, New Hampshire, are among the communities reintroducing glass to curbside collection. Communities including Marquette, Michigan; Gwinnett County, Georgia; and Lexington and Greensboro, North Carolina, have also transitioned to or expanded glass drop-off site collection instead of curbside collection.
Some glass recycling discontinuations occurred when haulers chose not to carry the material; others resulted from city leaders making quick budget cuts when recycling costs spiked. Laconia is among the many municipalities that eliminated glass because the recycling costs soared and landfilling the material became cheaper.
“Even if that glass had good end markets, it was in the blended [material] rate,” DeFife said. “It was a way to shift the budget costs from recycling to landfill. ... The economics of the landfill and recycling are out of balance.”
Recycling costs have since dropped precipitously in many cases, prompting cities to explore new glass solutions. DeFife said curbside collection remains the best option (after deposit programs) for getting high volumes of clean material. Ideally, he said, glass would be collected separately at the curb, and he believes the pending adoption of extended producer responsibility systems in some states could help fund this model.
Amid these shifts, recycled glass use in containers also has grown as plastic reduction pressure mounts. Now, the tricky part is implementing the best mix of efficient collection and transport systems to capture supply and meet growing demand. A number of specialized, local solutions are emerging to fill that gap.
Quality and economics
Keeping collected glass local reduces transportation costs for the notoriously heavy material. That’s especially important at a time when labor disruptions and other supply-chain issues are driving up transportation costs.
Programs only can remain local when processors and/or end users are nearby, so shipping costs don’t negate profits and efficiencies. The number of large glass storage and processing facility closures over the last five years compounded recycling problems across the country and caused communities near those facilities to drop glass instead of shipping it long distances. But new plants are cropping up to meet the need.
A new glass storage facility at the Fergus Falls Transfer Station in Minnesota accepted its first load in early January. It will take material from Otter Tail County’s glass drop-off locations, which collect a combined total of about 750 tons annually.
In Connecticut, last year the Houstatonic Resources Recovery Authority partnered with Strategic Materials and Urban Mining to bring glass recycling to 14 communities. Residents drop off separated food-grade glass at a dozen sites, and it gets processed at a recently opened plant nearby.
Glass recycling returned to central Michigan thanks in large part to the nonprofit Recycle Ann Arbor upgrading equipment at a recycling plant that shuttered five years ago.
New facilities and processing capabilities are part of a growing wave of large- and small-scale investments in glass recycling infrastructure. DeFife says such upgrades are long overdue and paramount for launching or resuming a glass recycling program.
“The entire U.S. recycling system has got to get better at having better-quality output, but it takes investment in equipment and material collection,” he said.
Some MRF operators and material processors dislike glass in single-stream recycling because it is heavy; broken glass shards can get caught in equipment or stick to other materials and other material bits can potentially stick to it and lessen its value. Modern glass programs are revisiting a quality-boosting concept from decades past: segregating materials instead of collecting them all in one bin. As material quality increases, so too does value.
“When glass is collected single-stream curbside, it's really not getting collected properly, and the processing for material in that way is very ineffective,” Charbonneau said. “We've been pretty proud of our numbers. We raised the glass recycling rate in Kansas City from about 3% to 20%.”
Ripple launched a commercial collection program in 2018 and now partners with more than 300 bars, restaurants, stadiums and event spaces. The success of that program prompted the company to begin a residential curbside collection program last year.
They’re more than halfway through a six-month, 650-household pilot project with the first participating city — Roeland Park, Kansas — which eliminated glass recycling nearly two decades ago.
“There is a strong sentiment, we believe, to bring that back,” said Roeland Park Mayor Mike Kelly. “We want to make recycling and waste diversion as easy as possible for folks, so we were excited to try this pilot project.”
Kelly said regional glass recycling faces challenges like industry conditions and economics.
“The waste haulers that currently provide recycling services don't accept glass,” he said. “It's a unique problem that’s going to require a unique solution."
Ripple’s core services have expanded to a nine-state region, and it collected 40,000 tons of glass in the last year. It hopes to partner with a second community on a curbside pilot this year. The city currently provides funding for the curbside program, and it didn't provide specifics about how the program fits into its overall materials management costs, but the model could evolve. For example, future options might involve directly billing residents.
“We want to see a lot more glass growth,” Charbonneau said. “It seems like our end users have just an endless appetite for our recycled glass, so we're always looking for more ways to get more glass in our system and processed and out to them.”
Kelly would like other communities in the Kansas City region to get on board because a regional approach provides continuity of service and economy-of-scale efficiencies.
“We’re not afraid to be the leader here and see how it works,” he said. "We have several cities watching us and asking us for weekly reports on the diversion rates or the participation rate. I think this will be a great data point."
Citizen advocates are driving many of the new programs, whether by pressuring local governments to devise a glass recycling solution or launching their own.
For instance, respondents to a recent survey in Cass County, Nebraska, cited glass recycling as the No. 1 service they would like the county to add that is not currently available. Officials in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, want to establish a permanent glass collection site due to growing requests from residents.
In Louisiana, Franziska Trautmann said she co-founded glass collection and processing organization Glass Half Full with Max Steitz in spring 2020 “because we had no reliable glass recycling programs in New Orleans … and all our glass just went to the landfill."
The pair learned about Louisiana’s coastal erosion problem and landed on the idea of turning collected glass into sand that can be used for coastal restoration. They launched a crowdfunding campaign to purchase their first small glass crusher and then raised another $100,000 via crowdfunding as the operation expanded.
Glass Half Full transitioned to a self-sustaining, revenue-generating business model by starting a glass pickup service and selling the processed product. The subscription service now operates throughout New Orleans’ neighborhoods, and the company still offers a free drop-off location at its facility. The entity is private and does not receive government funding, although it is open to partnering with local governments. In addition to having its own crusher, the organization has its own trucks and vans to transport glass.
“We didn't want to have to transport anything too far because of the environmental costs associated with shipping,” Trautmann said. “We ultimately decided to turn it into sand so that we didn't have to ship it off to a plant.”
So far, the business has collected more than 750 tons of glass and hopes to expand to other regions. While multiple cities from various areas have sent inquiries, Trautmann said the initial focus will be on expanding in Louisiana and throughout the Gulf South.
Thinking big by starting local
Some regional and national entities are investing in local glass recycling efforts, which is another sign of the concept gaining scale.
GPI assisted with funding Chicago’s Don’t Trash Glass pilot program last year. The bottles collected from bars and restaurants during the pilot went into new products including bottles and fiberglass. The pilot partners enlisted help from GlassKing, which launched a similar commercial collection program in Phoenix in 2018.
DeFife says local programs are more nimble because they don’t bear the same level of red tape or legislative barriers as national efforts. For example, establishing federal recycling legislation could take a decade. But local programs take shape much faster and cater specifically to the communities they serve instead of trying to be a catch-all.
“At the local level, there's a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship that can go quickly when somebody can show a system that works,” DeFife said. “They’re more manageable, and you have more willing partners.”
O-I Glass, one of the largest global glass packaging manufacturers, launched its own locally-focused Glass4Good (G4G) program last year. It collects glass in communities near its facilities and uses the proceeds to give back to those communities.
Residents bring their glass to drop-off centers, and O-I turns the material into cullet for its operations. The weight of the recycled content in that community is converted to a dollar amount, and 100% of the money goes to a local charitable organization.
“We’re really trying to find ways that we can help create efficiencies in the glass recycling infrastructure in their area, with the added benefit of the social engagement,” said Jim Woods, PR lead for O-I's Americas North division. “In some cases, we came into these communities, and they were paying to ship their glass scrap elsewhere when there were local options for recycling and creating efficiencies.”
Transportation hasn’t been a stressor because the programs are within two to 30 miles of O-I facilities. The company leverages its own infrastructure or what is already in the community. However, in some cases, communities might require investments like roll-off containers or storage bunkers.
“This is case-by-case talking to our communities and finding out what hurdles they're experiencing,” Woods said. “Let's … make sure that not only are you helping the environment by avoiding landfilling perfectly recyclable material, but then also making sure that we are doing good in the communities through the donation program.”
G4G collected 80 metric tons of material as of Dec. 31, and that volume is expected to grow this year with new community partnerships. James City County and Danville, both in Virginia, became the first G4G communities last year, and others in Colorado, Indiana, Ohio and Texas are on the docket.
Organizers for all the new glass recycling initiatives emphasize the importance of understanding each individual community's needs, resources and challenges to implement a successful program.
Achieving greater recycling rates won't happen overnight. Volumes are still below pre-pandemic levels. And despite fewer communities suspending glass collection, it's still happening in areas around the country. Yet, the leaders behind these newer programs believe their work is a good start toward reviving glass recycling.