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Smashing glass recycling myths

During the MRF Summit, co-hosted by ISRI and SWANA, Curt Bucey of Strategic Materials busted some of the biggest myths about glass recycling.

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November 25, 2020

Several myths seem to circulate about glass recycling: Glass can’t be recycled if it’s broken; glass can’t be recycled if the colors are mixed; and glass can’t be recycled if labels or organics are included.

“It seems these days, you pick up the newspaper and you quite often can find a negative story on glass in the press. I’ve read, ‘China Sword effects glass,’ and ‘Glass contaminates everything—it’s not safe.’ It seems these stories get passed from city to city or newspaper to newspaper,” said Curt Bucey, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Houston-based glass recycling company Strategic Materials, during a session at the MRF Summit. “I decided that I was going to take these claims and try to prove or disprove them.”

During a session titled MRF Commodities and Demand Innovations at the MRF Summit, which was jointly hosted by the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Bucey of Strategic Materials shared some of the biggest myths he has heard in recent years regarding glass recycling. The MRF Summit took place online Nov. 18-19.

Myth: Glass values are declining

Bucey said one myth he hears from within the recycling industry is that glass values are declining. While some glass has a lower value, cleaner glass may have a higher value, he said.

“If we have good, clean glass, it’s worth a positive. The dirtier, more contaminated glass gets, the value goes down. It’s just common sense,” Bucey said. “If [material recovery facilities, or MRFs] are running too fast, they haven’t put an investment in their glass cleanup systems or if they don’t have it turned on or haven’t maintained it, all of those affect the quality of the glass and the value."

He concluded, “When you hear glass value is declining, you really need to ask, ‘what is the quality level?’”

Myth: Glass contamination causes paper or plastic scrap rejections

MRF material certainly gets rejected from time to time, but Bucey said glass is not the only culprit when it comes to rejections.

“With single stream, everybody’s material contaminates everybody’s material. That’s kind of how it works,” he said.

Bucey said he asked what he estimates to be about 85 percent of MRFs across the U.S. about this topic to gauge how many MRFs had paper or plastic scrap bales rejected specifically because of glass contamination. He said none of the MRFs he surveyed had that experience.

“With the old recycling systems where glass was taken out in the back versus in the front, I think this would probably be accurate from 20 years ago. But it’s not accurate today,” he said.

Myth: Glass has no end markets

In certain regions of the U.S., specifically in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, Bucey said few end markets exist for glass. But for the rest of the country, he said, plenty of end markets are available.

“When we hear glass has no end markets, sometimes that’s just a local MRF telling a collector he doesn’t want to receive glass—it’s not really that there aren’t end markets,” he said. “In general, the markets for glass are pretty good. I don’t have inventory piling up at any of my plants. We’re pretty much what comes in today goes out tomorrow.”

During the webinar, Bucey advised MRF operators and municipalities to reevaluate glass recycling programs and have follow-up conversations on the topic.

“Take a look at cost accounting to figure out what you’re really doing with glass,” he advised MRF operators. “Cities and counties, reach out to local glass processors to get an explanation on the market.”