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Glass Works: A Second Look at Glass Recycling Collection Systems

May 1, 2012
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In February, nearly 80 corporate, trade group, and environmental and government leaders met in Dallas, Texas, to push forward a plan to boost recycling rates by 20% in the 40 states that do not have a beverage container deposit refund. In the 10 states that do, beverage container recycling rates are already consistently high.

The goal of the Action to Accelerate Recycling initiative, which was led and organized by Alcoa, is to improve beverage container recycling, primarily at curbside. To move the needle—particularly for glass container recycling—there needs to be a focus on improved collection systems and a consistent and robust processing infrastructure.

Curbside Recycling Collection

Over the past decade, many curbside recycling programs moved to single-stream collection, where all recyclables (paper, glass, plastic, aluminum, etc.) are placed in one bin. In 2005, 29% of the U.S. population with recycling had access to a single-stream program. By 2010, that number had increased to 64%, according to a R.W. Beck study.

While this trend helps economic efficiencies on the collection side and simplifies recycling for the consumer, it typically adds costs on the processing side and leads to the production of lower-quality commodities for recycling markets. This is especially true for glass bottles and jars, which lose their value as they move through a sorting process where they are typically removed at the end of the line.

According to a study commissioned by the Container Recycling Institute, on average, only 40% of glass from single-stream collection is recycled into new glass containers and fiberglass; another 40% goes to landfills, and 20% is used for low-end applications. In contrast, container-deposit systems result in 98% of glass being recycled.

Infrastructure Improvements Needed

Two 2012 reports continue to show that recycling collection systems are in need of improvement to support a robust and closed-loop recycling system—one that ensures recycled glass bottles go back into new glass containers.

A GreenBlue report, “Closing the Loop: Road Map for Effective Material Value Recovery,” investigates international packaging recovery systems and recommends practices to improve recovery in the U.S., including improvements in collection infrastructure. The research showed that the best-performing systems were not single-stream. Instead, they collected glass (and often paper) separately from other packaging, resulting in high-quality materials available for manufacture into new products.

A European report, “Good Practices in Collection and Closed-Loop Glass Recycling in Europe,” was conducted by the Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling and Sustainable Resource Management for the European Container Glass Federation. This report found that separated collection schemes, including bottle banks, are key drivers to glass recycling growth. The report recommends an integrated approach to glass bottle recycling that will yield high-quality recycled glass to meet specifications for bottle-to-bottle production.

Closing the Loop on Glass Bottle Recycling

The U.S. glass container industry supports many types of recycling collection systems, but it is also important for local recycling authorities and citizens to know that the glass containers they recycle are actually being recycled. Glass bottles are one of the best examples of closed-loop production: glass is 100% and infinitely recyclable.

The Glass Packaging Institute and its member companies are working with beverage packaging stakeholders, recycling officials, and others interested in supporting efforts to understand and improve the collection and processing infrastructure. Let’s help ensure that citizens’ glass bottle recycling efforts count.

 Any views or opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of Ceramic Industry, its staff, Editorial Advisory Board or BNP Media. 

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