Is Glass Recycling in the U.S. Broken?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

glass recycling
Empty glass bottles fill an Arlington County recycling bin on April 18, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. Glass is 100 percent recyclable with zero loss in quality over time, and as such, should be a recycling no-brainer. OLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty Images

If you're one of the millions of Americans who dutifully puts your glass bottles out in a bin on the sidewalk in front of your house in an effort to help curb waste and keep it out of the landfills, you're probably going to be upset to read the rest of this.

But it's time to face facts, because glass recycling in the U.S. seems to be broken.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 3,060,000 tons (2,776,000 metric tons) of the 12,250,000 tons (11,113,000 metric tons) of glass containers used by consumers in the U.S. was recycled in 2018, the most recent year for which data was available. And after growing gradually since the 1960s, the amount of glass being recycled pretty much stagnated over the last decade.

What happened to the glass that wasn't recycled? Some — 1,640,000 tons (1,488,000 metric tons) in 2018 — was combusted to produce energy. But most of it — 7,550,000 tons (6,850,000 metric tons) — ended up being buried in landfills.

Recycling about a quarter of our glass is a pretty unimpressive performance compared to other countries in the industrialized world. In Europe, for example, most countries recycle between 60 and 80 percent of their glass, and a few, such as Sweden and Denmark, recycle more than 90 percent of their glass, according to the European Container Glass Federation.

It's a shame that the U.S. doesn't do a better job of glass recycling, because glass containers for food and beverages are 100 percent recyclable, and can provide 95 percent of the materials needed to make new glass, according to the Glass Packaging Institute. Even more importantly, every 6 tons (5.44 metric tons) of recycled glass that's used in the manufacturing process eliminates a ton of carbon dioxide emissions.

"Glass bottles and jars are some of the most easily recyclable materials in the world — when recycled properly, they can be recycled infinitely without degrading the quality of the glass," says Mitch Hedlund via email. She's founder and executive director of Recycle Across America, a nonprofit organization that's trying to improve recycling in the U.S., and promotes the use of standardized printed labels on recycling bins to help people put their discards into the right place so it can be properly recycled.

In Hedlund's view, the system for collecting glass for recycling is poorly designed, which she ascribes to conflicts of interest in the recycling industry that allow landfill companies and plastics manufacturers to have too much influence over the rules.

One of the biggest problems is that 80 percent of communities across the U.S. now use a method called single-stream recycling, in which people put all of their recyclable waste in the same bin. Single-stream appeals to Americans, who as a 2018 Harris poll shows, tend not to recycle if it isn't easy and convenient. But for glass recycling, Hedlund says single-stream doesn't work very well. "The glass containers often break in the bin or truck, which often causes shards of glass being mixed with the paper, cardboard, aluminum and other recyclables," she explains.

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Recycling Knowledge Is Key to Success

Glass recycling is also hindered by Americans' lack of knowledge about how recycling works, and what the system is capable of accommodating. "Most people have no idea that drinking glasses and window glass cannot be recycled in household recycling," Hedlund says. "So when they throw drinking glasses or windows into the recycling bin with glass bottles and jars, the drinking glass and window glass, which is made of different types of materials, destroy the quality of the recyclable glass bottles and glass jars during processing."

Because there's so much garbage and non-recyclable glass being collected and sent to recycling plants, local governments end up having to pay for the processing. That expense "explains why many municipalities in the U.S. are not only discontinuing glass recycling ... but they are also discontinuing their entire recycling program," according to Hedlund.

As this 2015 article from industry publication Waste360 notes, broken glass in the waste stream also is hard on the equipment at recycling plants, inflicting wear and tear upon "conveyor belts, screens and other moving parts."

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Glass Is Infinitely Recyclable

On the other hand, if these problems could be solved, Hedlund says that glass recycling in the U.S. "could be economically beneficial and lucrative because there will always be a demand for glass and it is infinitely recyclable." In fact, Hedlund sees glass recycling as a potentially major source of revenue for local governments across the U.S.

"We need the federal government (or state governments) to enact legislation that will help the public to be able to recycle properly wherever they go," Hedlund says. "Without government intervention, the conflict of interest industries will continue to make sure recycling and glass recycling don't thrive."

Meanwhile, some communities are either eliminating glass recycling, or else imposing restrictions. In Tucson, for example, collecting curbside glass recyclables, some of which went to Mexico for use by beverage bottlers, used to cost the city government $567,100 each year — about $107 a ton, according to Tucson.com, the website of the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. Late last year, the city council passed legislation ending residential and commercial pickups. Instead, locals who want to recycle glass containers have to take them to one of 22 collection sites. The goal is to transform the program from a money-loser to a break-even proposition, a city council member explained.

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