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A Clear-Eyed Look At Glass Recycling

What really happens to that bottle, anyway?

Image: Flickr

Michele Morris

Glass has long been a darling of folks who think of themselves as champions of “green” values like waste and toxics reduction (or elimination!), sustainable energy use, and all-around miniaturization of our planetary footprint. But when it comes to single-use packaging like wine bottles and peanut butter jars, glass isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Don’t get us wrong—we love our Mason jars and growlers. We use them over and over for much more than zucchini pickles or burp-inducing beverages. Reuse rocks! But what happens when that same container is used just once, then recycled? Let’s take a look at glass recycling in Vermont.

Step 1. Your “blue-bin” recyclables go to a drop-off center or transfer station. From there, they probably go to one of Vermont’s two materials recovery facilities – commonly called MRFs (rhymes with smurfs). Chittenden Solid Waste District’s (CSWD) MRF in Williston receives blue-bin recyclables from the northern half of Vermont.

Step 2. At the MRF, glass bottles and jars are smashed at the beginning of the sorting process by spinning metal discs. These discs are spaced two inches apart. Anything smaller than two inches—corks, loose bottle caps, pill bottles, etc.–drops through these spaces and ends up as trash mixed with the glass.

The broken glass travels past vacuums, magnets, and a whole series of complex machines that shake, rattle, and roll that whole messy mix. The goal is to separate glass from all that trash.

This cleaned-up glass goes through a special smasher that breaks the shards down to tiny, sand-like particles known as processed glass aggregate (PGA).

Step 3. CSWD pays about $5.00 per ton to send the PGA to a quarry in Colchester, VT, where it’s blended with quarry stone and sold for use as a subbase in local construction projects.

People who’ve been on our fabulous MRF tour since are always surprised to learn that the 6,500 tons of glass bottles and jars put in your blue bins do not become new bottles and jars. This is true all over the Northeast (and in most other parts of the United States).

Recycled glass can be used to make new glass containers only if the colors are separated and the glass is free from any non-glass contamination. There are clean-up facilities that wash and sort glass by color, but the closest one to the northeast is in Canada. The financial and environmental costs of hauling such heavy material long distances are significant.

Bottles delivered to a redemption center or reverse vending machine for the nickel refund go through an entirely different system that doesn’t include a MRF. These bottles have a slightly better chance of becoming new bottles, but they travel many, many miles to do so. Transporting heavy glass wastes energy, creates emissions and impacts roads.

The bottom line is that no matter which system you use to recycle your glass bottles and jars, they are unlikely to end up as new glass containers.

CSWD has invested more than a million dollars in equipment devoted to ensuring that our community’s glass bottles and jars stay close to home and out of the landfill. All signs are pointing to more and better options in the future—we’ll be sure to share them as they come online.

In the meantime, we urge everyone to follow those three R’s:

Reduce packaging (and costs) by buying in bulk and portioning at home;

Reuse containers. Replace single-use containers with durables like water bottles, coffee mugs, and shopping bags. You can even bring a glass or plastic storage container to the meat and seafood counter;

Recycle what’s left–the right way. Not sure? Visit www.cswd.net for tips and answers!

Michele Morris is the Director of Outreach and Communications for the Chittenden Solid Waste District, a municipality created to implement solid waste management mandates legislated by the State of Vermont. CSWD’s mission is to reduce and manage the solid waste generated within Chittenden County in an environmentally sound, efficient, effective and economical manner. Our vision: Products are designed to be reused or recycled and our community fully participates in minimizing disposal and maximizing reuse and recycling.

 

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