A new wave of glass cuts occurred when communities and recyclers reconfigured their services in the tumultuous months following the 2018 implementation of China’s scrap import restrictions. Glass is not directly affected by these regulations, but in some cases it was caught up in the fallout because of broader recycling cost pressures. Hundreds of U.S. municipalities reworked their accepted materials lists, and in the process dozens cut glass from curbside collection: Volusia County and Port Orange, Florida; Prince William County, Arlington County and Fairfax County, Virginia; Clinton, North Carolina; and Tacoma and Ellensburg, Washington are among many more.
The Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC) formed in 2016 to work with companies across the supply chain to advance best practices in glass recycling processing, collection and collaboration, and to increase the amount of recycled glass available for reuse. GRC's 2020 survey shows that from 2017 to 2020, the number of public sector employees whose communities offered some type of curbside glass collection dropped from 79% to 61%. The number of survey responses from the public sector also dropped 23% during that time.
But now industry groups say the tide is turning and fewer cities are taking this step.
“We're definitely seeing changes to the trend from a couple years ago,” said Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI). “The interest in glass is strong and many communities are taking new steps to increase or expand recycling opportunities for glass.”
Despite the slowdown in the rate of municipalities dropping glass from their recycling programs, it is still happening. Tucson, Arizona, announced recently that glass will not be accepted curbside starting Feb. 1, but residents can bring their glass recyclables to drop-off sites. The city's Environmental Services Department will collect the glass, crush it and distribute it to the local transportation agency and other departments for reuse. The move is said to be motivated by MRF processing costs.
When cities do eliminate glass from curbside programs, they frequently face pushback from residents and calls to reinstate service or devise an alternative collection program. In GRC’s survey, 90% of public sector respondents said residents expect to recycle glass. Public feedback is a major reason municipalities explore other glass recycling options after eliminating the material from curbside.
Calls are broadening for creative and targeted solutions to make glass recycling work. Recyclers are focused on devising different collection methods catered to individual regions, reducing contamination, adding equipment investments and conducting public education programs.
Some of the nagging issues with glass are caused by its incorporation into a catch-all, single-stream curbside collection system. Alternative collection options have cropped up in many communities. Cities like Lake Worth, Florida, kept glass but transitioned to dual-stream collection.
The most commonly adopted solution to reinstate glass collection is one that Arlington, Fairfax and other counties in Northern Virginia established: drop-off sites. Ohio-based Rumpke Waste & Recycling has also been working with Midwestern communities it serves to create glass depots where citizens deposit containers; currently they work with three glass depots and another is in the works.
Drop-off sites are a strategy working in the Northeast as well, according to Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA). The region has struggled with glass since bottle manufacturer Ardagh Group closed its Massachusetts plant in 2018 and demand dropped.
NRRA and partners worked to establish a source-separated glass collection network in more than 100 Northeast communities. Participating municipalities can deliver their glass to consolidation sites, and some of the material is transported to a glass beneficiation plant in Canada. The crushed material is sent to companies in the U.S. for use in fiberglass insulation. The rest of the of material collected at consolidation sites is processed with NRRA's mobile glass crusher to be used in roads and other infrastructure projects.
This article was originally published in Waste Dive.