Glass Recycling is Gaining Ground
By: Maura Keller

Americans dispose of about 10 million metric tons of glass each year, but only one-third of it gets recycled.

This pales in comparison to several European countries, such as Switzerland, where nearly 90 percent of glass is recycled.

However, it appears that glass recycling may be making a comeback in the U.S., albeit slowly. In the city of Greenville, South Carolina, glass recycling is being resurrected after the city decided to halt glass recycling back in 2016. Thanks in part to RAM Recycling, glass recycling is being collected from commercial and residential customers alike, and being offered to Fisher GlassEco, a regional operation that makes countertops and others surfaces from glass aggregate.

The rejection of glass for recycling purposes is primarily due to the contamination that happens to the glass during the transportation process. Typically glass is collected in curbside recycling bins and sent to recycling facilities where it eventually ends up in landfills rather than being recycled. Here’s why – during the transportation process, the glass is often broken and becomes contaminated by being mixed with other recycling residue, such as small bits of plastic and paper, making it unrecoverable.

To offset this continuous contamination of glass, many municipalities have rejected glass as part of their recycling programs. In fact, the ceasing of glass recycling in Greenville is not unique as glass markets continue to be tight throughout the U.S. But as some municipalities continue to eliminate glass recycling from their collection efforts, others are putting more emphasis on glass recycling as commercial and residential consumers focus more attention on this recycling stream.

According to the Glass Packaging Institute, communities are addressing a broad range of recycling challenges, including increased collection costs, tighter export markets and quality/contamination issues. In order to address challenges with recycling quality, several localities have transitioned to dual stream, or similar collection methods to enhance the value and resale of glass. This being noted, glass remains immanently recoverable within single stream recycling programs, and some MRFs have invested in technology to improve the capture rates for glass and other recyclables. One example is FCC Environmental, which has made investments in the Houston MRF to better sort out glass and other recyclables from the city’s single stream program.

Amanda Pratt, director of corporate communications at Rumpke Waste & Recycling, said that Rumpke started processing glass in 2003. Since then, the company has partnered to identify new markets for the material.

“There’s more technology available to assist us in processing the stream of material to help meet manufacturer demands,” Pratt said. “Over the years, we’ve invested millions to make sure that families and businesses that want to recycle glass have an opportunity to do so.”

Today, Rumpke processes glass and sends it to the container and insulation industries.

“The best part is our partners are regional,” Pratt said. “We are keeping jobs and dollars in the midwest.”

Back in 1932, when William F. Rumpke founded the company, he would pull glass from the waste stream for recycling. Today the company is doing it on a much larger scale. Currently, Rumpke recycles around 4,000 tons of glass per month.

As Pratt explained, Rumpke is the only waste and recycling hauler in the nation to operate a glass processing facility. “Our service region spans four states. Glass collecting through curbside and commercial programs is separated out at our large MRFs and put through a cleanup system before being transported to our Dayton, Ohio facility for final processing,” Pratt said. “Glass makes up 15 to 20 percent of the single stream curbside residential mix. By recycling it we are keeping it out of our landfills, conserving resources and meeting a demand.”

For a recycling program to be successful, it has to be easy, accessible and economically viable. If one piece of the equation is missing, programs are put at risk. According to Pratt, recycling today requires attention to detail.

“People have to recycle right, we have to work together to reduce contamination in our streams to ensure a marketable product. Contamination, accessibility and costs are challenges. Rumpke, as a recycling leader, is committed to working with these communities to help build programs with each municipality’s specific objectives in mind.”

Recently, several entities within Virginia – Fairfax County, City of Alexandria, Prince William County, and Arlington County – announced a new strategic partnership to recover and recycle glass.

To tackle the challenge of contaminated recycled glass, these jurisdictions are now collecting glass via large purple glass-only drop-off containers and bringing it to Fairfax County’s “Big Blue” processing plant, where it will be recycled for use in a variety of projects. For example, in Alexandria, Virginia, purple glass-only drop-off bins are placed at the city’s four recycling drop-off centers, which are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Likewise, in June, Ohio’s Hancock County Solid Waste Management District reignited its glass recycling program by partnering with Rumpke Recycling as part of the process.

“The residents and officials in Hancock County want to grow their recycling programs. It was important to find a way to reincorporate glass recycling,” Pratt said. “Fortunately, we were able to work with them to place recycling depots or drop off centers where residents can drop off glass. The glass is hauled to our Dayton processing facility.” It is then cleaned and sized to use as feedstock in fiberglass manufacturing.

“The markets are strong and the technology is in place. We have learned so much about the process,” Pratt said. “The framework is available, and Rumpke is committed to investing in the effort to help more consumers and businesses grow their glass recycling programs. We aren’t afraid of innovation. We continually invest in our system to make the best product possible and to ensure long-term end use.”

As the Glass Packaging Institute explained, glass recycling processors have installed advanced ceramic detection and color sorting technology to properly sort out recycled glass purchased from MRFs. Some MRFs can also increase the quality and quantity of glass and other commodities heading through their sorting lines by placing a “glass breaker” at the beginning of the process, instead of the middle or end. Improved sorting technology at both the MRF and glass processing level has become increasingly important over the past few years, as greater types and quantities of packaging materials have entered the recycling stream.

The Glass Packaging Institute stresses an increased amount of opportunities in the future of glass recycling. The glass container manufacturing and fiberglass industries maintain a strong demand for quality recycled glass around the country. In 2018, these industries collectively purchased 3.2 million tons of recycled glass for remelting into new containers and fiberglass insulation.
What’s more, as local communities, state legislatures and Congress continue to address climate change through legislation, the environmental and energy benefits provided by glass recycling across the country will contribute to helping communities achieve future goals and mandates.

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