Glass recycling: boon or boondoggle

Recycling glass is messy and costly.

Michiganders take great pride in our recycling efforts. Our bottle deposit of 10 cents per container leads to one of the highest rates of recycling glass and aluminum drink containers in the nation. While other types of glass containers do not have a deposit fee on them, many communities offer curbside or drop off recycling for other glass containers (e.g. wine bottles, pickle jars, etc.). Of course, even our deposit beverage containers end up pulverized after collection and the mixed colored glass (clear, brown, green) makes it more difficult to reprocess into new containers. Mixed color glass is the most difficult to reuse because manufacturers want a consistent color of finished bottles rather than a unique combination of glass that has hues of brown, green, etc.

A recent investigation reported in the Wall Street Journal raises serious questions about our glass recycling efforts. The reporter, Serena Ng, suggests that glass recycling is becoming too expensive and is placing an undue burden on local governments and businesses. She cites cities that consider it more cost-effective to have residents throw glass bottles in their trash to be landfilled.

In our attempts to increase recycling of all products, many communities have allowed us to dump all our recyclables into a single container. This trend has increased the percentage of our waste stream that goes into recycling channels, largely because it is much simpler for households. However, it creates problems for those who then need to sort out the various types of material.

Much of the recycled glass is contaminated with shredded paper, rocks, food particles, etc. The investigation found that the process of separating usable glass from the trash is very costly and therefore leads to many companies and municipalities sending the collected glass and debris to landfills. One company reportedly charges $10-40 per ton to take collected glass because of the high cost of sorting, this on top of the additional expenses of collecting the material separately from the trash. These costs have led some districts to suggest to their citizens or customers that they dispose of their used glass containers in their normal trash that is disposed of in landfills. Another company, Waste Management, the largest waste collector in the United States indicates that glass is tough to handle, rough on equipment and the only recyclable commodity it has to pay a processor to take.

While glass manufacturers suggest they would like to use more recycled glass, they indicate that there is a shortage of good quality recycled material at a reasonable cost. At Owens-Illinois, the largest maker of glass bottles for food and beverage, they have a goal of using 60 percent recycled glass by 2017 but are only using 26 percent at present in their United States plants. Collecting glass separate from other recyclables and separated by color could boost the availability of recycled glass but at a considerable cost of collection to be borne by households, government, and waste companies.

The conclusion of this analysis reiterates a basic axiom of economics, “There is no free lunch”. If we, as citizens, want to recycle more and more of our waste products, it will cost us, either in increased fees, higher taxes and/or more time and hassle in sorting our waste stream. While trash collection and landfill fees are significant, the overall direct costs of collection and processing of recycled material is much more expensive. According to Michigan State University Extension those additional dollars could be used for schools, roads, parks or a host of other publically provided goods and services. What is the best use of those scarce dollars? The answer to that is not science! The answer rests upon our values! What things are more important than other things? We answer those questions in our daily activities as well as in local, state and national elections through our voting.

 

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