Recent columns have outlined the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI)’s newly released framework and roadmap for achieving a 50% glass recycling rate in the US, alongside engagement with local and national governments regarding regulatory policies as packaging EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) schemes are introduced to the American political debate. One consistent theme for the industry in these discussions is that glass and glass recycling, surprisingly, are often misunderstood.
As one of the most common, durable and sustainable package materials, glass has been a core recyclable for decades. But, as single-stream kerbside recycling system took hold in the US (largely under the promise to municipal governments that it would streamline and reduce their collection costs) glass has become misunderstood. While a few shining stars have prioritised their responsibility as recyclers, making necessary investments in the system to properly sort collected recyclables, a few bigger players that make up the majority of recyclable recovery systems, by and large, have not. As a result, glass and other recyclables have ended up in landfills, as landfill disposal fees and other economic drivers have failed to properly prioritise their recovery.
Misinformation and myths
As GPI and our member companies work to expand glass recovery and expand the use of glass as a preferred packaging choice for food, beverage and the growing cosmetics, toiletries and pharmaceuticals markets, we are running headlong into a need to re-educate key decision makers about glass. Recent packaging professionals are often taught little about the material, and sustainable packaging groups continue to focus on trying to make plastic more sustainable. The sheer volume of plastic in the waste stream makes it more difficult to bring attention to obtaining cleaner streams of glass for remanufacture.
Local government leaders are frequently told by representatives of the recycling collection and collective waste hauling industries that there are ‘no markets for glass’, regardless of proximity to a container or fibreglass end market. Packaging and sustainability decision-makers at brand companies have dealt with decades of ‘design for recycling’ discussions regarding plastic and are misled to believe that labels, closures or breakage makes glass recycling ‘difficult’, or that colours must all be sorted for end-markets. This misinformation clouds the public discourse about glass and increases myths that often lead to the needless landfilling of glass.
GPI’s guide for decision makers
Confronting these twin educational challenges, GPI initiated an intense effort this spring to provide transparent information regarding basic glass facts and resources to address regional market solutions for glass recycling, consistent with the findings of our recent ‘A Circular Future for Glass’ roadmap. In May, GPI released a set of recommendations ‘Questions Municipal Leaders should ask about glass recycling’ with links to helpful resources and key steps that local government officials should consider prior to implementing any permanent changes to their glass recycling programmes.
The guide breaks the problem set into five areas: collection; quantity; quality and end-markets; processing; and administration. Collection options range from how to best keep glass in kerbside single-stream, consideration of modified single-stream drop-off, and opportunities for commercial bars and restaurants to begin glass collection and recovery programmes. Quantity helps decision makers understand how large their market is relative to the industry needs, suggests aggregation or regional collaboration for smaller, more rural communities and points toward grant resources emerging from the recently created Glass Recycling Foundation (GRF).
Calling on local leaders to step up
Moving to quality and end-markets, the guide highlights the strong prevalence of end-markets across the country and dispels some common myths about different levels of quality, colour and cullet size. Specifically highlighting the Glass Recycling Coalition’s (GRC) MRF (material recovery facilities) glass certification programme, the GPI suggests that local leaders have more tools at their disposal than they may realise to demand quality standards in MRF hauling contracts, to perform audits of the glass tip floor, and to understand the impact that residual contamination has on market value.
Processing provides education about the need for meeting cullet spec standards, the types of facilities and equipment needed to meet the quality standards, and how landfill policy impacts glass availability and end-markets. Solid waste managers and city leaders should review information and seek second opinions about glass from industry experts, not just from representatives of recycling and hauling companies that also operate landfills.
Lastly, an overlooked section on administration, which focuses on the strong support for glass recycling among consumers, the importance of contract provisions on pricing and avoiding terms that lock in the marketing of recyclable commodities without off ramps when market conditions for other commodities impact budgets. In recent years, some cities with strong glass markets have been forced to make changes even when glass has positive net value due to poor contract terms or blended value losses from other commodity problems. The city could include quality measures for MRF operations and should perform audits and allow for alternative collection of glass if the primary MRF does not want to invest in the proper equipment.
GPI will be building on these educational pieces with regional engagement. We invite companies in the logistics, hauling, and glass recycling equipment industries to join us as we work to dramatically increase domestic glass recovery. In addition, we are embarking on new communication channels, information and education campaigns about the size, scope and presence of the glass industry, jobs and overall economic impact to make sure local leaders understand the circular and economic benefit glass provides to their community.