Glass packaging manufacturers hail California’s landmark EPR law as major circularity boost

Glass News ,

This piece was originally published in Packaging Insights.

By Joshua Poole

The Glass Packaging Institute (GPI) in the US has welcomed California’s landmark polluter-pays law (SB54) as an opportunity for glass container manufacturers and recyclers to dramatically improve the quality of glass and all recyclables in-state. 

In essence, the law shifts the costs of recycling, including collection and sorting, from taxpayers to packaging manufacturers. Moreover, it mandates that all single-use packaging regardless of material must be recyclable or compostable by 2032. According to GPI, California recycled around 67% of its glass against a national average of 31% in 2021.

GPI’s president Scott DeFife tells PackagingInsights that the “Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act” recognizes the benefits of different packaging materials, creates investments in much-needed infrastructure for refill and reuse, and lays the foundation for the use of more circular packaging materials like glass for California consumers.

“SB54 takes a holistic approach to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), directing regulators to take clear steps to improve the quality of the recyclables to be collected. Many of the funds going into the program support investments and system improvements to the existing recycling system, including single-stream collection," he explains.

Combatting plastic contamination
The new law considers glass beneficiation as a formal Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), while stakeholders are set to receive new data points on both outbound and inbound contamination rates. DeFife says these data points will provide much more transparency on contamination in the MRF stream.

“Many people don’t understand that all the small plastics and non-recyclables end up in the glass stream due to the nature of how single-stream MRFs operate – contamination can be 25-50%. The new data points should help shed some light on which recycling systems are effective at sorting out materials and which need improvement,” he says.

Moreover, DeFife struggles to see any shortcomings with SB54, although GPI plans to closely monitor and participate in stakeholder discussions with regulators and other interested parties in the coming months and years.

“We want to ensure that as regulations are put in place they follow the intent of the statutes and do not place glass at any particular disadvantage. GPI is prepared to engage in similar processes in Colorado, Maine, and Oregon, the three other states rolling out their EPR programs for packaging.”

The Producer Responsibility Organization
Meanwhile, DeFife also calls on The Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO), which glass has an opportunity to be represented on, to also invest in the reuse and refill system, recycling infrastructure and sorting systems.

“Currently, local governments pay for collection and therefore sacrifice quality. However, the PRO is allowed to study enhancements to collections that improve quality. The more high-quality recycled glass available from the program, the greater the opportunity for brands and glass container manufacturers to achieve recycling goals,” he says.

The Bottle Bill program
To further support California’s circular glass economy, the state should place a large focus on ensuring Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) redemption centers are fully supported, expanded and provided with grant funding, especially at new locations.

“This progress can be achieved through the use of unredeemed deposits. Covered beverage brands (initiating the deposits) should continue to have a strong voice in future DRS modifications and program direction,” stresses DeFife.

“While beverage container redemption is important, being able to purchase the recycled glass captured in the program and ensuring that funds are permitted to be spent effectively is just as critical.”

According to Californians Against Waste, the state’s Bottle Bill program follows a basic model but has some unique characteristics that improve its efficiency. Like all bottle bills, the payment of a deposit by consumers (California Redemption Value “CRV”) is the backbone of the program. Consumers pay US$0.05 for containers under 24 oz and US$0.10 for containers over 24 oz. That money is returned to consumers when they recycle their containers or is “donated” to a curbside operator or non-profit recycler, depending on how the consumer recycles the container. 

The CRV is essential to California’s high beverage container recycling rate and its low beverage container litter rate, the non-profit environmental advocacy group says. By putting a monetary value on the recycling of beverage containers, consumers are much more likely to recycle, not litter or trash, beverage containers.

According to Innova Market Insights, a majority of US consumers say that glass has good (28%) or excellent (24%) recyclability. Only 8% believe the material has poor recyclability.

Climate considerations
Despite glass packaging’s relatively high recycling rates, critics point to what they say is a high climate impact, largely resulting from energy-intensive production. Notably, Packamama recently introduced its recycled PET flat wine bottles to Australia, claiming to help improve the industry’s carbon footprint by targeting an environmental hotspot: the conventional glass wine bottle.

“Sixty-one percent of Australian wine drinkers think glass bottles are an environmentally sustainable packaging format, when in fact they are the single largest contributor to wine’s carbon footprint. This demonstrates the need for better information and awareness in the space,” Santiago Navarro, CEO and founder at Packamama, tells PackagingInsights

However, DeFife refutes claims that glass is more carbon-intensive than competing materials.

“When compared to many of the food and beverage packaging options, energy use at glass container plants is either on par or at much lower levels. Glass is made from inert, naturally occurring ingredients (sand, soda ash, limestone, and recycled glass). It’s non-toxic and has Generally Regarded as Safe by the US FDA status for all food and beverages,” he says.

“Recycled glass is also 100% and endlessly recyclable, with no loss in quality.”

GPI represents the glass bottle manufacturing plants and recycling facilities in the US. We recently looked at how it is working to improve recently mandated EPR legislation in Colorado.