Status of Glass Recycling

Like many other products, the glass recycling industry has experienced turbulence the last few years. The reasons are varied: Covid-19 pandemic (temporary restrictions placed on returns/collection programs, bar/restaurant/hospitality industry closures and restrictions), shifting marketplace and consumer habits, etc..  Before we discuss the current state of affairs, here are some interesting facts about glass recycling according to the Glass Packaging Institute:

  • Glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity.
  • Glass is made from readily-available domestic materials, such as sand, soda ash, limestone and “cullet,” the industry term for furnace-ready recycled glass.
    • NOTE: While sand has historically been an abundant resource, reports of a shortage in sand are increasingly common, highlighting the need for expanded glass recycling.
  • The only material used in greater volumes than cullet is sand. These materials are mixed, or “batched,” heated to a temperature of 2600 to 2800 degrees Fahrenheit and molded into the desired shape.
  • Recycled glass can be substituted for up to 95% of raw materials.
  • Glass containers for food and beverages are 100% recyclable, but not with other types of glass. Other kinds of glass, like windows, ovenware, Pyrex, crystal, etc. are manufactured through a different process. If these materials are introduced into the glass container manufacturing process, they can cause production problems and defective containers.

Status:

  • The majority of glass recycling occurs domestically so there has been very little impact due to closure of overseas markets as has been the case with other common recyclables: paper, cardboard, plastic, etc..
  • According to a 2018 study by the Glass Recycling Coalition, 90% of consumers and residents expect to be able to recycle their glass. Currently, 81% of U.S. recycling programs include glass options for residents.   
  • In 2019 Americans disposed of some 10 million metric tons of glass. Most of it ends up in the trash. Only about one-third gets recycled (source: Chemical & Engineering News). In 2018, 39.6% of beer and soft drink bottles were recovered for recycling, according to the U.S. EPA, 39.8% of wine and liquor bottles and 15.0% of food and other glass jars were recycled. In total, 33.1% of all glass food and beverage containers were recycled.
  • End markets need a consistent supply of quality glass bottles and containers to make cullet or recycled glass. Most glass containers collected curbside or commercially will need additional processing before being manufactured into new containers or fiberglass (source: Glass Recycling Coalition).
  • Crushed recycled glass can also be used for construction materials, fiberglass insulation, water filtration systems, sandblasting, road building and landscaping.
  • Recycling revenue for commodities fluctuate. Glass is no different, but its pricing is highly dependent on the amount of contamination.  99% glass / 1% contamination material has a higher value than 50% glass/50% contamination, but all can be separated from fines, dirt, shredded paper, bottle caps and are likely to find an end market, such as containers or fiberglass (source: Glass Recycling Coalition).

It is an interesting market. Easily recyclable, managed domestically, and people expect it to be recycled, yet the manner in which it is collected, mixed and/or single stream, leads to contamination which decreases value due to increasing processing costs. What would seem to be the simplest manner to recycle glass, “Bottle Bills” that provide a redemption direct to the consumer, are only active in 10 states. States with container deposit legislation have an average glass container recycling rate of just over 63%, while non-deposit states only reach about 24%, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

As always, WTS will continue to monitor and inform.