GPI is emphasising the circularity of glass containers for meeting consumer goods companies’ sustainability goals, as well as addressing structural issues in the North American solid waste and recycling system. The current structure often inhibits collection of in-demand quality recycled glass and has challenged manufacturing supply chains.
Glass starts with a strong base of consumer trust. Generations of consumers know glass and well-respected brands around the world have used glass packaging for generations. Glass bottles and jars are trusted for their package integrity, aesthetics and numerous other qualities provided to the food and beverages that they hold.
When local government managers are pinched by their waste management providers and budgets into cutting back on recycling programmes, time after time their constituents continue to demand glass recycling options. If residents find out that their ‘recycling’ service providers have been landfilling glass, they respond strongly – the consumer base regarding glass purchasing and recycling remains strong.
The challenges for the glass industry over the past decade are most evidenced by misleading information provided by some large waste management companies, who have made internal business decisions in response to China’s National Sword policy. These companies mislabel glass as non-recyclable, rather than acknowledge that they lack the tools to properly recycle it. Instead of bolstering their recycling infrastructure for a material that often makes up a quarter of the recycling stream, glass is pointed to as a contaminant. Rather than talk about the quality of their recycled material output, they refer to glass markets as “not being present”. GPI and the glass industry are taking these issues on directly and are making inroads to clarifying the reality of end market desire for more high quality recycled glass.
While alcoholic beverage consumption trends are changing, resulting in a slight decline for beer sales, other categories for glass continue to expand, highlighting a path for stronger growth in the food, organic, health and functional beverages, wine and spirits categories. The societal and economic response to the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated in-store grocery purchasing and has given the industry an opportunity to remind consumers about the long-term stability of glass packaging for food and beverages, as well as medicine and pharmaceuticals.
Redoubled recycling efforts
At the same time, the economic impact of the pandemic has exposed the need to redouble efforts to collect more post-consumer glass for recycling and reuse. Prior to Covid-19, the industry was already exploring ways to boost recycled content to meet brand customer sustainability goals and industry environmental objectives.
North America’s recycling system is not nearly as robust as the European system. With more space to cover and distance between markets, state and local governments have built a greater reliance on landfilling at lower cost, creating an over-reliance on single stream systems.
In 40 states and Washington DC, slightly more than a third of the glass goes directly to landfill. For glass, this means quality is at the mercy of the materials recovery facilities (MRF) in most of the country. Therefore, a majority of the quality recycled glass for container manufacturing originates from the 10 bottle deposit states. The Covid-19 retail response – limiting consumer bottle returns – set back many redemption programmes in those states, further demonstrating the need to build greater resilience in the glass recycling system.
Engaging with government leaders
Every challenge is an opportunity and the Covid-19 pandemic has given the industry a chance to engage with local government leaders about the benefits of glass and the creativity that can be employed to recover it. GPI and other industry stakeholders have engaged in dozens of conversations with local government leaders on this issue and have proposed possible solutions.
The response has been particularly encouraging because of the underlying support that exists for glass as a packaging material. In the coming months, GPI will revisit this topic to give Glass Worldwide readers updates on the industry’s collective progress, pulling apart these issues and exploring them more fully in a larger series.
Companies that have business in the North American glass market can be a part of these efforts by engaging with GPI – join its forums and committees – network with the organisation on solutions and goals to take advantage of the opportunities to grow glass markets, so more glass can be captured and diverted from landfills, so it can fulfill its most sustainable beneficial use in an emerging circular economy.