Glass Works: What Counts as Recycling?
When residents set glass bottles, paper, and other recyclables at the curb or place them in recycling bins, they expect that these materials will be recycled. But what counts as “recycling,” and how is it measured?
This issue is especially important for glass container manufacturers. Glass bottles are one of the few packages that are 100% recyclable in a closed-loop system. That is, they can be recycled again and again into new glass bottles without loss of quality or purity. The industry uses a significant amount of recycled glass at nearly 50 U.S. manufacturing facilities for the production of these new containers. This cost-efficient process reduces energy use and lowers emissions.
Disposal vs. Recycling
It makes a difference whether the glass is counted as recycling (or “diversion”) or disposal to ensure that more recycled glass is available for remanufacture—and that the closed-loop process takes a priority throughout the collection and processing of recyclables. For example, CalRecycle (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) recently announced an ambitious goal to reach a 75% state recycling rate. The agency set the bar even higher by redefining the measurement system. “Diversion” of materials to cover or reuse at landfills, which can include a large amount of undersized container glass, had originally been counted as recycling. It will now be counted as “disposal.”
Since all those undersized materials will not get counted as recycled items, an incentive has been created to handle them differently to ensure that more glass and other recyclables go back into new products. To reach this goal, CalRecycle is targeting, among other things, increased recycling collection and improved performance at materials recovery facility. Such efforts should help to decrease the amount of recycled glass going to disposal.
Improving Recycling Metrics
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is focused on how recycling is quantified. Currently, the agency publishes an annual report detailing the generation and recovery of glass containers and other materials. (The 2010 glass recycling rate was 33% for all containers.) In early 2012, the agency issued a request for comments on this report, specifically as it relates to measurement tools.
In response, the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI) asked the EPA to consider examining end markets when looking at the collected recyclables. Data on how much recycled glass actually goes back into use for the production of new glass containers and other manufactured products should be considered, rather than just what is picked up at the curb. The GPI also asked that the EPA distinguish between closed-loop recycling and diversion, which, in the case of glass, includes recycling for non-container uses.
Finally, the GPI asked for an analysis of the effectiveness of current recycling collection systems for recovering materials. Some types of systems, such as single stream, where all recyclables are collected in one bin, create more challenges for glass container manufacturers to collect the recycled glass they need for remanufacture.
Legislation to Better Understand Recycling Data
The GPI and its member companies are actively working with Congressional offices and other industry stakeholders to craft federal legislation to help the EPA improve how it quantifies recycling data. While local and state governments may have an understanding of what is collected for recycling, the legislation would focus on the amount of recyclables actually recovered for reuse in manufacturing.
On June 27, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Economy held a hearing on draft legislation that addresses this need for improved recycling data. Along with leadership and representatives of various manufacturing, recycling, collection and processing industries, I had the opportunity to testify in support of this initiative. Subcommittee Chairman and Congressional Recycling Caucus Co-Chairman John Shimkus (Ill.) and members of Congress present at the hearing noted the potential benefits to manufacturing and recycling-related industries of obtaining better data and clarity around recycling systems performance.
Understanding collection methods and reuse rates for various collection systems will certainly benefit glass manufacturers. Local officials would have access to better data on recycling systems as they choose the best recycling program for their community.
In the end, what is counted does matter. The GPI anticipates that these initiatives to enhance reporting will be a key component in the glass industry’s effort to use as much recycled glass as possible for making new glass containers.
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.