A Kick in the Glass

Colin Cogle

In 2012, the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority (HRRA), which represents eleven towns in western Connecticut, made the switch to single-stream recycling. Single-stream recycling allows all recyclable materials to be mixed together, in a single bin that is collected curbside or brought to a recycling center. Thus, instead of the homeowner sorting their recyclable waste prior to collection or drop-off, everything is sent as-is to a materials recovery facility (MRF), where machinery, cameras, and humans handle the onus of separation: they sort paper, cardboard, cans, plastics #1 through #7, glass, metal, e-waste (where accepted) and other materials so that a more-or-less pure pile of raw material can be shipped to its final destination

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Glass jars for recycling Photo credit: Jo Ann Deasy

Problems with Material Collections

Single-stream recycling, however, has a downside. Its convenience leads many people to try to be “green knights” and recycle dirty, mixed, or other items that may contaminate a MRF’s final products; for example, even a lone greasy pizza box or dirty glass jar could sully an otherwise acceptable pallet of the collected product. Susan Collins, director of the Container Recycling Institute [and not the Senator from Maine], said in a 2015 interview with NPR, “what single-stream wins in volume, it sacrifices in quality. ‘As we often say, you can't unscramble an egg.’ ”  One-fourth of material collected by recycling facilities has to be trashed.

 

Under China’s Green Fence (2013) and National Sword (2017) policies, the once-bountiful import of recycled materials has been severely curtailed, and those materials that do pass their customs must be more pure than before; minutes from the August 30 meeting of the HRRA say that recycled glass exported to China must be at least 99.5% pure. That leaves little room for labels, glue, caps and those little bits of ketchup that would have been rinsed out of the bottle if the consumer weren’t in such a rush to get the kids off to school that morning. John Decker of Oak Ridge Waste and Recycling said succinctly during the HRRA’s September 24 meeting, “[T]he ability to sell glass is gone. […] Most of the glass today, unfortunately, because it is so dirty and contaminated, has to be disposed of.”

 

Preparing your Glass for Recycling

 

Before you try to recycle glass (or anything), do your best to make sure that it’s clean and all labels and plastic or metal caps have been separated.  Afterwards, place borosilicate glass such as Pyrex in the trash: the changes it’s undergone to withstand high temperatures remain after being melted, which makes it non-recyclable by most facilities. Glass tends to retain its color after recycling, so sort by color if asked.

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Glass jars for recycling Photo credit: Jo Ann Deasy

Once separated and finely crushed, the resulting cullet can be used to make fiberglass, flux for brick manufacture, Astroturf, artificial sand, countertops, water filtration media, abrasives, a substitute for pea gravel or crushed rock, landscaping or construction fill, or (of course) “new” glass.

 

Humans have been using glass for over six millennia. Let’s work together and make sure the same molecules are used for another six.

 

Colin Cogle is a Sierra Club member living in New Milford. He recycles as much as he can.

For more on recycling in Connecticut, visit http://www.recyclect.com/