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GLASS WORKS: Advances in Recycling

January 1, 2009
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Glass containers are 100% recyclable, which is just one more reason why glass is a truly sustainable package. But getting a clean, abundant supply of recycled glass to “close the loop” and make new bottles and jars is a persistent challenge for the North American glass container industry.

Demand for recycled glass, or cullet, to reduce energy costs and meet enhanced regulatory standards for air emissions at glass manufacturing plants is fueling competition for high-quality cullet from all industry sectors-container glass, fiber glass and flat glass.

This squeeze for both more and higher-quality cullet-which can make up to 70% of feedstock-is also tied in to new dynamics in recycling collection and technology, sources for recycled glass, and federal and state legislation.

Collection and Cullet Quality

At the curb, single-stream recycling, where paper, bottles and cans are all collected in the same container, is gaining steam in large population centers. According to a recent survey, single-stream recycling serviced 50% of the population in 2007 compared to 29% in 2005. This trend impacts the quality of all materials recovered, especially glass containers, compromising the use of this material for the manufacture of new glass bottles.

In fact, a 2008 study in northern Colorado on best practices for glass recycling found that the glass capture rates from single-stream collection may only reach 30% (compared to almost 100% for drop-off collection programs). To untangle all the recyclables, the focus has moved to expand and improve handling and sorting technologies, including optical sorting equipment at materials recovery facilities and glass processing plants to remove contaminants and color-sort glass.

New Sources for Recycled Glass

Looking beyond the curb for high-quality cullet, glass manufacturers are encouraging glass bottle recycling in commercial settings, including bars, restaurants, wineries and hotels. Programs are growing in North Carolina, fueled by a 2008 state law; Colorado, where glass markets are strong; and California, which boasts a glass recycling rate that hovers near 70% each year.

In North Carolina, a law requiring Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) permit holders to recycle beverage containers has proven a boon to glass recycling. Reports compiled by the N.C. Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance indicate that an additional 33,750 tons of containers will be collected for recycling in 2008. Of the 8500 ABC permit holders (mostly bars and restaurants), 7478 report they are in compliance with the law. Glass processors have also noticed an increase in the quality of the recovered glass.

Recycling glass and other containers in public spaces and at public events is also on the rise. New York City and Washington, D.C., are pilot testing container recycling on city streets. And the city of Monterey, Calif., is collecting glass and other containers at over 75 annual public events. At the August 2008 Wine Makers Festival, for example, the city collected over 5000 wine bottles and 1400 other beverage bottles.

The Legislative Front

Glass bottles and other containers are also collected for recycling at redemption centers in 11 states with mandatory beverage container deposit programs. During 2008, a handful of states proposed expansions of existing bottle deposit programs, and five states introduced, unsuccessfully, new bottle deposit legislation.  While laws and deposit amounts differ from state to state, all tend to improve the quality of glass collected for recycling and increase the percentage going to bottle-to-bottle recycling.

On the federal level, the Recycling Investment Saves Energy Act was signed into law as part of the overall Senate financial rescue package in October 2008. This law provides a special depreciation allowance equal to 50% for qualified reuse and recycling property. The Glass Packaging Institute actively supported this legislation. We believe it will help enable recycling and processing businesses to purchase the latest equipment in sorting technology, which in the end can improve cullet quality.

It is also anticipated that this law will lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for glass and other types of packaging, as well as decrease energy use as more materials are recycled. In 2009, the glass industry anticipates more challenges and opportunities as it pushes further to improve the quality of cullet needed to make new glass bottles.

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