In January, we asked our Facebook followers to send us their questions about glass recycling. We combined this with some of the more common questions we get via email and sought out the opinions of municipal recycling programs, industry leaders and other experts for the most qualified answers. Enjoy!
Question #1: Do you have to separate glass by colors?
The short answer to this is that it depends on your local recycling program. If your curbside recycling hauler has instituted single-stream recycling, all glass bottles can be combined in one bin, and the material will be separated at a transfer station or material recovery facility (MRF). But in a city like Kansas City, it’s required that you separate glass by color.
In the recycling process, color is a big deal because bottles are often used to make new glass containers. Think back to grade school art class when you used to mix paints and got a brand new color, and then imagine the resulting color from mixing brown and blue glass during recycling.
For those of you that favor industry jargon, here’s some information from the Glass Packaging Institute: “Glass manufacturers are limited in the amount of mixed cullet they can use to make new bottles. Separating recycled container glass by color allows the industry to ensure that new bottles match the color standards required by glass container customers.”
Question #2: Do you have to clean out glass bottles before recycling?
This is generally a recommended practice to make things easier on the handlers. If glass has sugar remains, it becomes sticky when it dries and is more prone to attract bugs. This goes for other food and beverage containers as well.
During recycling, glass is crushed down into pieces called cullet. This process cleans the glass and removes any remaining residue (such as labels or lime wedges in your beer). This means a dirty bottle could still be recycled, but since your recycling program likely asks you to rinse out containers you should do it to the best of your ability.
Question #3: Is glass included in state deposit programs?
Container deposit laws, commonly known as bottle bills, have consumers pay a fee for each container purchased that is then refunded when a container is brought back for recycling. There are currently 11 states in the U.S. that have bottle bills, and all of them cover at least one glass container.
Now for a good news/bad news scenario. The bad news is that in all of these states, only glass beverage containers are eligible for the deposit and refund. Several also have a volume restriction, so wine bottles aren’t included. If the glass jar isn’t labeled with your state and a refund notice, you can’t bring it back to the point of purchase.
The good news for residents in these states is that bottle bills create a market for recycling, as there will be lots of supply. If your curbside program accepts glass beverage containers for recycling, it’s unlikely that your food jars and wine bottles will be turned away.
Question #4: Why doesn’t my community accept glass for recycling?
It’s important to think of recycling as a business, because that helps you understand why certain materials are in higher demand. Glass has two things going against it in the recycling game: weight and flexibility.
Glass bottles weigh more than plastic and metal, and heavier products cost more to ship. Plus, you can crush and bale a load of aluminum cans or plastic bottles, which reduces space needed in a truck that would otherwise be filled by air.
These two factors often make it more expensive to transport glass for recycling, resulting in a lower resale value. If your community can’t make a profit collecting glass, that may be why it’s not collected. In some cases, glass is not accepted curbside but you can drop it off for recycling. This is yet another reason to know your local recycling rules.
Question #5: Can broken glass be recycled?
Broken glass is recyclable, but it might not be reprocessed into new glass bottles. This is because when glass breaks, it can often be a challenge to separate it by color given the tiny pieces. This glass can be used as an additive in fiberglass, tile and flooring, pavement or even turned back into sand to stop beach depletion.
However, just because glass is crushed during recycling doesn’t mean you should do this prior to putting it in your bin. This could injure waste haulers or people sorting material at the MRF, and according to glass manufacturer O-I Global, there’s already a shortage of recycled content to make new containers.
“Sometimes there is a perception that there’s no market for recycled glass, and that’s not the case,” says Paul Smith, O-I’s global sourcing manager of cullet. “We need to create awareness of this, and consumers can do their part by finding out what is happening with recyclables.”
Question #6: Are glass containers recycled at restaurants and bars?
This will depend on the business, but commercial glass recycling is possible, and in many cities and states, it’s a way of life. In North Carolina, any bar or restaurant with an Alcohol Beverage Permit is required to recycle containers. According to GPI, this results in an additional 33,750 tons of containers recycled each year.
For some bar patrons, recycling is an initiative they take up on their own. For example, the University of Kansas’ Students for Bar Recycling is an organization that collects glass bottles from local bars to be recycled. The City of Lawrence has no free commercial pick-up service for glass, but the students work with these establishments to take it off their hands.
If you aren’t sure whether containers are recycled at your local eatery or pub, just ask a manager. They might not even be aware that it is an option, and can also reduce the amount they pay to haul away garbage.
Question #7: Can non-container glass be recycled?
Think of other forms of glass you have lying around the house. Mirrors and windows, ceramics and drinking glasses, cookware and even light bulbs. You’ll eventually want to dispose of all of these products, but they can’t be recycled with container glass.
The simple reason is that most of these other forms of glass are treated with chemicals, so they have a different melting point than bottles and jars. This is important for improving the durability of your car windshield, but makes disposal a challenge. Here’s a few options for non-container glass:
1. If the glass isn’t broken, consider reuse for your mirrors, ceramics, drinking glasses and cookware. They’ll likely be accepted at a local second-hand store.
2. While there’s no market for recycling incandescent light bulbs, if you’ve switched to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) there are plenty of recycling options because they contain mercury. Both Home Depot and IKEA have in-store CFL collections.
3. Windows are typically treated as construction and demolition waste, and many cities have separate facilities that handle this material.