In some western Pennsylvania communities, glass is no longer being collected curbside with cans and paper as part of residential recycling programs. So a statewide environmental group is offering a solution.
Justin Stockdale is the western regional director for PRC. He says at their first pop-up event in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, over 700 people dropped off 12 tons of glass for recycling. Stockdale says the pop-ups are sponsored by the municipalities affected by the changes in glass recycling, and by the glass industry and companies like Straub Brewery. He says the long-term goal is to establish permanent glass drop off sites, so that there still will be a stream of recycled glass entering the market, and not ending up in landfills.
The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple sat down with Stockdale to learn more about this shift in recycling glass.
Kara Holsopple: This change in recycling came as a surprise to many residents but not to you. Tell me a little bit about the history of glass recycling and single stream recycling where you put your glass and aluminum and paper into one bin.
Justin Stockdale: If I think back to recycling when I first got involved in the recycling industry 25 years ago, we really managed commodities. We had drop off centers where you put your one colored glass in one bin, a different color in another. You put your paper over here. You put this type of plastic in one bin. We managed individual discrete materials.
That all changed in the ’90s and 2000s with a move, really, chasing convenience. We wanted more people to recycle, and to do that we wanted to make it more convenient. Our tool to make it more convenient was throw it all into one bin and somebody else will sort it out.
What we found even all the way back to the advent of single stream [recycling] was that putting glass in that bin was really problematic. It harmed equipment. Glass is a very abrasive material so it does not perform well on conveyor belts. But more importantly, it contaminated other material. So you were seeing paper bales leave the sorting facilities with piles of glass embedded into the paper. There’s no real mechanical way to get the glass separated from all the other materials, just like there’s no real mechanical way to get other material separated from the glass.
We, as the residents of southwestern Pennsylvania, are suffering that consequence.
KH: Is this a problem statewide?
JS: You’re not seeing the same kind of shifts across Pennsylvania and you’re certainly not seeing it necessarily across the U.S. In suburban Philadelphia and in Philadelphia proper, what we’re seeing is those sorting facilities are saying ‘we’ll continue to take your glass, but we’re going to charge you a lot more for the privilege.’ The old costs for service to sort one ton of material might have been fifty dollars a year ago, today it’s over a hundred dollars.
Here in southwestern Pa., the costs are going up, but not nearly as high. A reason why it’s not increasing so precipitously is the removal of glass. Nationally, there have been a lot of moves all over the country that are similar to what’s happening here, whether [glass] is truly removed out of the system. I can’t find another place across the country that has been impacted this immediately and directly as we are here in southwest Pa.
KH: I’ve heard that one of the reasons behind not picking up glass curbside anymore is that there’s not a big market for glass recycling anymore. So what happens to the glass that’s dropped off at these events?
JS: The markets are not the challenge for glass. There are plenty of consuming mills out there. In fact, where we’re sitting, we’re probably within about a two hour drive of as many as three large scale industrial glass mills that consume nothing but waste glass to make new bottles and jars. So, the market side is as valuable as it was when I got into this 25 years ago. We don’t see big market fluctuations. We don’t see the value of it go up and down and big swings like we do with paper and with plastic. The challenge is getting it to those mills in a form and shape, into a quality standard that they can actually use it.
KH: You mentioned that glass recycling is a commodity. Can you say a bit more about that because I think people think about recycling as like a duty and a responsibility and they don’t necessarily see the other end of it.
JS: This is one of the failures I think of single stream. Single stream has lulled us into this world of, well, if you put it in the bin, magically, it’s good for the environment. It will magically save the earth if we just put it in that blue bin rather than the black garbage can. We really disconnected ourselves from the real reality of recycling. For something to be recycled, it has to be in demand as a raw material to produce something else. And if it’s not that thing, it’s not that commodity, then it’s not recyclable.
Plastics is the best example of it. When we put all these various and sundry plastics in our recycling bin, well you know, a big chunk of them are non-recyclable. Why? Because there’s nobody using them as a raw material.
I think all these changes we’re having right now are actually a bit of a good thing, because it’s letting us go back to an understanding that recycling is more than just putting things in a different colored garbage can. It’s about managing materials — it’s commodities and raw materials for manufacturing processes. I think that reconnection is really important for people to acknowledge, to recognize.
KH: How what does this trend in recycling say about how we use materials or how you know how we consume materials?
JS: At PRC, what we do everyday is try to challenge people to think about their waste very specifically and directly and ask themselves the question, ‘Do I need this product in the first place?’ This goes back to the very reality that recycling is not the right answer. Recycling is a last resort for materials that you otherwise can avoid.
We really want to focus again on the materials and the packages that are the most recoverable, most recyclable. Glass is one of those packages. Glass can turn right back into a glass bottle over and over and over and over and over and over again. It’s a pretty endless loop. Glass is a very secure or safe commodity to use because it’s highly recyclable. When we use it to make new bottles, it saves 90 plus percent of the energy that it would take to produce that glass bottle out of virgin materials. So, we don’t want people to steer away from glass [and] buy everything in plastic. Plastic does not come back to us as the same container it was before. You recycle your old soda bottles and it’s likely going to come back as carpet or fleece or insulation. It’s not going to go through that repetitive cycle of being recycled the same way over and over and over again.
We certainly don’t encourage people to avoid glass because it’s not recyclable in their curbside bin. But, you have to think about your waste. That’s what we really want people to do is to be conscious of the stuff they’re consuming, so they are then conscious about the stuff they’re throwing away.
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