Tucson is one of many cities that have scrapped curbside glass recycling. Starting February 1st, Tucson residents have to drive miles to one of the city’s glass recycling facilities with their boxes or bags of glass bottles and containers. Why are so many cities turning their backs on curbside glass recycling?
It comes down to money. In Tucson, city officials say they used to make around $500 million on recyclable materials each year, but it’s plummeted. The city projects that curbside recycling is going to cost the city around $4 million per year.
Choices become making the taxpayers pay for curbside recycling or removing the recyclables that are driving up the cost. Glass recycling accounted for around a quarter of the city’s curbside recyclables and cost upwards of $600,000 a year for more than 5,000 tons.
Tucson Isn’t Alone
Tucson isn’t the only city changing recycling policies. Several cities have switched from curbside glass recycling to drop-off recycling centers.
Alexandria, Virginia, decided to stop accepting glass in curbside carts back in 2019. The city’s glass was going to landfills anyway because it often shattered when going from the curbside bins into the truck, so those shards posed a danger to workers and were contaminating the other recyclables. Instead, residents were asked to start bringing their glass bottles and containers to drop-off locations.
Fairfax County in Virginia also decided that the entire county’s curbside pick up of glass items would stop. Residents now have to bring their glass containers to drop-off sites or throw them in the trash.
Tacoma, Washington, stopped accepting glass recyclables in curbside bins starting in 2021. Four drop-off locations were set, but some were not scheduled to open on time due to the ongoing pandemic.
Kingston, Pennsylvania, is another city that stopped curbside glass recycling in 2021 due to the rising costs. It costs the city $49 to dump a ton of trash or $100 to get rid of a ton of recycling. It makes financial sense to toss it in the trash rather than recycle it. Residents who want to keep recycling need to bring their glass recyclables to the Department of Public Works.
There’s a Problem With Glass Recycling in the U.S.
Glass is 100% recyclable. By melting glass down and reusing it only 5% of new materials are needed. This reduces the energy consumption as furnaces used to make new glass need to run at temperatures of up to 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. It also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere during processing. It should be simple. Recycle glass and help the environment. It’s not that easy.
Years ago, China stopped taking a lot of recyclables from countries like the U.S. Those import restrictions have made it harder to find places that will buy and process materials like glass, cardboard, plastic, and metal. This left the U.S. struggling to find places to send glass for processing.
That’s part of the problem. It’s not the only reason glass recycling is stagnating. According to the Glass Recycling Institute, only 30 states have glass processing plants. These plants are needed for cleaning, sorting, and remelting the glass for reuse. When the glass is melted down, it cannot be mixed. Pyrex cannot be melted with clear glass, and green glass from a wine bottle cannot be mixed with windowpane glass. Processing each type of glass on its own is crucial.
When consumers put glass in curbside bins, it’s an important step, but things go wrong. When the contents of the bin are dumped into the truck, all may be fine. When the next bin is dumped, the glass items bang together and smash. At the recycling facility, you now have workers who have to handle the recyclables and that smashed glass. You also have the glass shards that are now mixed into another container and that contamination can make it hard to recycle materials properly. Everything has to be washed, but that takes more time in the first stages of processing, which costs money. The additional staff needed to do this work drives up costs.
Another issue with glass recycling is that people don’t know what is and isn’t recyclable. People think that glass is glass and recycle it all. Not all glass can go into recycling bins. They have different chemical properties and melt at different temperatures. Drinking glasses and light bulbs are common problems. They cannot go into a curbside bin, but people do anyway thinking it’s glass, so it goes in the bin. That also contaminates the single-stream recycling process that requires more manpower to separate the recyclables of value from those that don’t.
The Stages of Glass Recycling
A recycling truck brings the recyclables to a facility where it’s dumped. It goes onto conveyor belts where workers pick out items that cannot be recycled, such as glass holiday lights. The conveyor belts help with sorting. Screens help with sorting out the cardboard and paper. Eventually, the glass pieces go into a system that cleans them and breaks larger pieces up. Lines of workers pull out contaminates like plastic and paper until only glass remains and is sorted by color before going into grinders.
That crushed glass is then put into containers where it’s sent to manufacturing plants to be turned into new items. In a plant, the crushed glass (cullet) is mixed with raw materials for color or for that 5% of new materials that are needed. The cullet and materials go into a furnace where it’s melted. From the liquid state, the glass is then molded or blown to form new bottles, jars, other glass containers, or glass products like insulation.
What Can Consumers Do to Help?
Do your part to make sure too much money isn’t being spent on correcting what’s sent to a recycling facility. How do you make sure you’re doing everything right? Go to your hauler’s website for the most current list of recyclables to ensure you’re recycling the correct materials. If you’re not sure, ask for guidance.
Wash your recyclables before you put them in your bin. When possible, remove the labels. Soaking them in water will do this. It keeps the paper and adhesive out of the glass recycling stream.
Reuse glass jars and containers as much as possible. The glass baby food jars you have could be washed, sterilized, and used for storing spices. Reuse jelly jars and make your own preserves. Save up your glass containers and post them on community forums. You may not make your jams, jellies, and pickles, but your neighbors might.
If you live in a district where single-stream recycling is used, see if it’s possible to set the glass aside in a box. You might be able to get to the recycling facility once a month and drop glass off and help prevent some of the damage glass faces in a recycling truck.
As glass is costly to recycle and there are not a lot of U.S. facilities that do this work, cities are faced with the decision of whether glass recycling is cost-effective or not. If your district stops accepting glass, visit Recycle Nation and find out where you can bring your glass items.
Our search engine makes it easy to see how to get rid of your recyclable items. Choose the item from the list, enter your ZIP, and click search. A list of drop-off centers appears along with contact information and directions. With Recycle Nation, your recycling questions are quickly and easily answered.