Where Does Your Recycled Glass Really Go?

So you’ve polished off that jar of peanut butter, rinsed it, and tossed it in the recycling – where eventually it will be picked up by your local waste management crew and transported to a facility where it can be melted down and repurposed into a new glass product. Right? Actually, an alarming percentage of glass set aside for recycling really makes its way to the landfill, for entirely preventable reasons. Decades after the rise of America’s recycling revolution, it’s time to take a close look at glass and address the lingering problems dogging waste management companies that accept recycling.

Many consumers actively seek out glass packaging when they can because it’s renewable – it can theoretically be melted down and reused an infinite number of times. Furthermore, it doesn’t off-gas like some plastics do, and it’s usually not lined with compounds like BPA, which come with health concerns. People view glass as an ethical choice when they have an option of selecting between multiple different kinds of packaging, but what happens after that glass leaves the house is shocking.

Challenges to recycling glass are multifaceted. One is a faltering market – waste management companies have to operate at a profit, and if they can’t process and sell glass profitably, they have no incentive to recycle it. Instead, many regions allow them to use crushed and damaged glass as landfill liner to create a natural barrier that will prevent leaching and protect the environment, and while that is an environmental positive, it’s also an instance of single-use recycling. Once that glass is buried underground, it’s not coming up again for a very long time.

Moreover, glass is heavy, as anyone who’s had a juice bottle punch through a grocery bag knows. This makes it costly to transport, adding to problems with the bottom line when it comes to recycling. If waste management companies can’t find local buyers, they have to search further afield, and every mile adds to transport costs and the environmental footprint of transport. This is a particularly big problem in rural areas, where glass processing facilities may be hours away, but landfills are right around the corner.

Another problem is single-stream recycling, an approach to recycling that’s been widely heralded by consumers. Dumping any and all recyclables into a single bin seems much easier than painstakingly separating them – in nations like Japan, the breakdown of recycling categories is formidable – but it comes at a hidden cost. Dirty goods contaminated with food and other matter can render an entire load unusable, because the cost of cleaning is too much to bear and still turn a profit – you may be sensing a theme – but more importantly, glass breaks. Broken glass is much more difficult to recycle, especially as it gets more banged about and fragmented at every step of the recycling process. Even with advanced mechanical sorting systems, it’s hard to get all the glass out, and waste management firms may opt to toss it.

The news about the real truth behind what happens with recycled glass is depressing, but there’s room for good cheer, because there are a lot of options for addressing – and improving – the situation. One is to shift back to separated recycling, at least for glass. While this adds a burden for consumers, it keeps glass isolated so it can be processed more easily, increasing the chance that it will make it all the way to a recycling facility instead of a landfill. Notably, glass throughput rates are much higher in states with bottle deposit systems, because such systems provide consumers with an incentive to separate their glass and return it for valuable bottle deposits.

Optical scanning is another option. The systems used to separate single stream recycling vary considerably from state to state, with a range of options available, but optical scanning systems, a relatively new technology, make it cost effective and functional to pull glass out of a stream of recycling while protecting the health and safety of workers and packaging that glass for easy recycling. Widespread adoption of such systems can bring the overall cost down, at a benefit to recycling companies and consumers, because this will encourage waste management firms to take the extra step and actually recycle their glass.

Some facilities specialize in glass-only recycling, and they’re another option. Their unique equipment and skills allow them to process glass extremely efficiently for in-house recycling or forwarding to other companies, increasing the percentage of glass that’s actually recycled. For waste management companies, contracting with such firms can offer the benefit of focusing on more easily processed recyclables while still getting value out of their glass.

Ultimately, it may also take pressure from individual states and municipalities to compel waste management companies to do the right thing with their glass. Until then, glass is still an ethical buying choice – it’s just maybe not quite as clean as you thought it was.