January 2005

Low prices and quality impact glass recyclers
by Brian R. Hook

Low prices and quality issues have led some in the recycling industry to question whether the cost of recycling glass is worth it. Curt Bucey, chief operating officer of Strategic Materials Inc. said he often hears there is no longer a market for recycled glass.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Bucey. “I could sell double what I’m getting today. The demand for glass has never been higher.”

But he said that the recycled glass has to meet quality specifications. Unfortunately, he said, that glass often arrives at his facilities contaminated. Strategic Materials Inc., based in Houston, is the largest glass recycler and powdered glass processor in North America. It handles over 33 percent of the domestic cullet market.

Today, Strategic Materials often receives glass shipments that are 50 percent contaminated. Ten years ago, according to Bucey, contamination amounted to only three to five percent. “Obviously, quality is a big factor,” facing the glass industry, he said.

Bucey said that cities are partly to blame. Instead of worrying about the quality of recycling, cities are worried about diverting trash away from the landfills. “We’re getting a lot of garbage that they would normally have thrown away,” Bucey said. “They’re able to claim that as being diverted. But, it shows up at our plants mixed in with our glass and we end up throwing away much higher quantities than we did ten years ago."

Single stream recycling — where all recyclable material is collected from the consumer in one bin and separated at the processing facility — has also caused problems, according to Bucey. He said he prefers to receive glass from dual stream facilities, where containers are kept separate from the paper stream during the recycling process.

“It is hurting our bottom line,” said Bucey. He compared it to a downward spiral staircase. Strategic Materials has to spend more by investing in new machinery and it has to use more people to sort the contaminated material. It must then look for ways to compensate for higher costs, which often means paying lower prices for recycled glass.

What needs to be done to reverse the trend? Bucey said he would like to see more bottle bills or deposit legislation across the country. “That solves all of my problems,” said Bucey. “I get a lot more quantity and a lot higher quality material.”

Research by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) — a nonprofit, research and public education organization based in Arlington, Virginia — has found that the ten states currently with deposit legislation, or bottle bills, have the highest recycling rates.

Jennifer Gitlitz, research director for CRI, said that a bottle bill would shift the costs associated with manufacturing, recycling and the disposal of glass from government and taxpayers to producers and consumers. It would also improve the quality of glass.

CRI supports a bill introduced by Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, called the National Beverage Producers Responsibility Act. If passed, the bill would set a target goal of 80 percent recycling. If beverage producers do not achieve that rate, in any given state, there would be a ten cent deposit imposed on each container in that state.

It would then be up to the beverage industry to design how the goal would be achieved. “If they want to achieve it with a deposit, that’s fine. If they want to achieve it in some other way that they think can reach 80 percent... that is ok too,” said Gitlitz.

With a deposit system, consumers would bring in the glass by hand. “You have a very clean segregated stream being produced,” said Gitlitz. “It’s the manufacturer that’s responsible for making sure that the containers get recycled. So, it’s to their advantage to keep those things separated by color and clean, the way the customer brings them in.”

CRI has estimated that 6.4 million tons of glass was wasted in 2002. According to Gitlitz, if that amount had been recycled, it would have saved the energy equivalent of three million barrels of crude a year. Plus, not producing new bottles, made from virgin materials, would have prevented the emission of one million tons of greenhouse gases.

Just how much glass is currently being recycled in the U.S.? The Glass Packaging Institute (GPI) — a trade group based in Alexandria, Virginia, which represents the glass container industry — has not published recycling recovery rates for glass since 1998. At that time, GPI reported that glass beverage container recovery reached 31 percent.

Joseph Cattaneo, president of GPI, said that the recycling rate for glass currently ranges between 27 and 40 percent. But he did not have an official number. GPI does not support deposit legislation as a solution to the problems facing the industry. But Cattaneo admitted that the biggest thing facing the industry right now is the quality of glass.

“It impacts the price, because container manufacturers will not buy it unless they can use it and they can’t use it unless it meets their standards,” said Cattaneo. He said that there are currently too many steps between collection and the glass manufacturers.

“The economics of glass is lower than some of the other commodity recyclables. It tends to be treated less significantly, meaning they take a look at glass after they get everything else out,” said Cattaneo. But he said it benefits manufacturers to buy cullet, because it allows the glass manufacturers to run furnaces at lower temperatures. Cullet has a lower melt temperature than virgin materials. In addition to costing less to fuel the furnace, because of the lower temperatures, it extends the life of the furnace.

Mick Barry, vice president at Mid America Recycling, headquartered in Des Moines, said that good, high quality glass is in high demand. Mid America Recycling, which operates in deposit and non-deposit states, is a multi-material recycler.

“Because we handle a lot of deposit material from bottle bill states, there is high demand for our product,” said Barry. “We’ve been able to maintain our pricing.” He said that more bottle bills across the country would help. “We get quite a bit more from our deposit material than for our non-deposit material,” he said.

Val Anderson, sales manager at Glass Aggregate System — a supplier of glass aggregating equipment in Fairbault, Minnesota — said it is a good time to be in the glass recycling business. She said that they are getting strong demand oversees, especially in Europe. “I believe that it is something that is only going to be passed in our direction.”

Anderson said that in the U.S., the infrastructure for an efficient glass recycling system is not yet in place to support glass recycling. But while some are throwing up their hands in frustration, she said that negativity is not good for the recycling industry.

“Yes, we can sit there and wallow in it. But you know what? Opportunities are there,” said Anderson, referring to the glass recycling market. “It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in the states. The average Joe out there is not seeing it, because there is not an infrastructure out there. But, believe me, there are people making money in glass.”

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