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Why is Glass Recycling in the United States So Dismal?

Glass is a product with a number of inherent advantages. It's made from a readily-available and non-toxic source (sand). It's exceptionally stable and nonreactive, and so provides a terrific vessel for containing products like wine that you might want to store for decades. And it can be melted down and reused without any degradation of its quality, so it's a perfect product for recycling. And yet, in the United States, it's recycled less than a third of the time. This fact is one of the main reasons we've been exploring alternative packaging like the bag-in-box that we debuted for our Patelin de Tablas Rosé earlier this year. But it doesn't have to be this way. Other countries recycle a much higher percentage of their glass than we do here. I found our depressingly low rate of glass recycling eye-opening enough that I have spent a fair amount of time over the last few months researching why. The conclusions say a lot about what our society and industry values right now. I'm guessing and hoping that this information might be eye-opening for you as well.

Before we start investigating why, a quick review of the facts. According to the EPA, in the United States our glass recycling percentage is 31%, and non-recycled glass represents about 5% of the waste that goes into American landfills each year: 7.6 million tons of glass annually. Our recycling rate is less than half of that in Europe (74% overall) and one-third of the best-performing countries like Sweden, Belgium, and Slovenia (all over 95%). And it's actually worse than those numbers appear, since a significant percentage of the glass that is collected and classified as "recycled" in the United States is in fact crushed up and used for road base rather than melted down and used to make new glass.

The stakes are significant. Recycling glass has positive impacts not just on the waste stream, but on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, making new glass containers from recycled glass saves between 20% and 30% of the energy, roughly 50% of CO2 emissions, and offsets a greater-than 100% requirement for inputs, compared to working from raw materials. What's more, according to a 2017 survey by the Glass Recycling Coalition, 96% of Americans want and expect that glass be included in their recycling options.

So why, if waste glass is a usable commodity, if consumers expect to recycle it, and if doing so saves on cost compared to working from raw materials, isn't the picture here better? The consensus among experts is that it boils down to three main factors.

  • The most widely adopted recycling system in the United States is problematic for glass. Single-stream recycling, in which glass, plastic, and paper are co-mingled in a single bin for pickup and transport to a materials recovery facility (MRF), is overwhelmingly the most common community-sponsored recycling system in America. It is convenient for households, who can toss all their recyclables in one place, and for solid waste companies, who can pick them up with one truck. However, while plastic and paper are unlikely to be damaged in the collection process, glass is fragile and often shatters in the collection process, becoming difficult to sort and also contaminating the other recyclables. Plus, single-stream recycling systems encourage “wish-cycling” where consumers throw nonrecyclable products like light bulbs, plastic bags, soiled cardboard, and Styrofoam into their bins figuring that it’s better to over-recycle than to throw away something that’s recyclable. Doing so adds cost to the recycler and sometimes leads to it being less expensive to send loads to the landfill than pay the cleaning and sorting costs. By contrast, multi-stream recycling systems, in which glass, paper/cardboard, and plastic are placed in different receptacles and collected separately, bypass the MRF entirely and can usually go straight to a processing facility. The downside of these systems is that they cost more for the municipality and solid waste companies, and there is often not the political will to pass along these costs to taxpayers. But the difference is outcomes is stark: just 40% of the glass that goes into single-stream recycling systems ends up getting recycled, compared to 90% from multi-stream recycling systems.

Trash and Recycling

  • The United States is big. There are roughly 400 MRF facilities around the country. But there are many fewer glass processing facilities, which turn recycled glass containers into cullet, or usable fragments often sorted by color: just 63 nation-wide, in 30 states. There are even fewer glass manufacturing facilities: just 44, in 21 states. Processing facilities are often far away from population centers where glass is collected and MRFs built. Glass is heavy and bulky, which means that the transportation costs from MRF to processing facility can, absent other incentives, raise the price of the cullet that results high enough to outweigh the savings from using recycled glass.
  • Transparency is low, both pre- and post-consumer. First, from the post-consumer end. Most people don’t know what happens to their recyclables once they’ve been collected. Consumer surveys show that residents overwhelmingly want their communities to recycle, and reasonably assume that if they do their part their municipality will take care of the rest. But municipalities have little incentive to report on what happens after the recycling is collected. Do you know where your town’s recyclables are sorted? Or what percentage is sent to the landfill? Do you know whether the process makes or loses money for the community? I didn’t. And communities, which have largely chosen a recycling system that gives consumers a false sense of effectiveness, don’t have the incentives to make this information easy to find. Second, from the pre-consumer end. Have you ever seen a wine label display the recycled content of their glass? I don’t think I have. That’s an indication that wineries don’t think that their customers care about this information, or at least don’t care enough to displace other content in what is valuable and scarce label real estate. And bottle suppliers don’t seem to think that wineries care about this information. We pushed our glass supplier TricorBraun to get us bottles with the highest-possible percentage of recycled glass. Our antique green bottles are made with between 60% and 70% recycled material, and our flint (clear) bottles made with 35-50% recycled material. That’s the most that’s available for domestically-produced wine bottles. But that information isn’t easy to find. If you look at their TricorBraun's selection of Burgundy-shaped bottles, each listing includes information about their weight, base diameter, color, neck size, height, punt height, mold number, capacity, finish, and style. But there’s no information on the bottle’s recycled content. That’s surely an indication that bottle suppliers either don’t see this as a point of differentiation or don’t have recycled content widely enough available for the resulting information to be worth sharing. And wine isn’t unique. Glass containers, whether for beverages, food, or household products, don’t typically disclose the amount of recycled content. All this makes it difficult for a consumer to make informed purchasing decisions. 

So what’s the way forward here, for consumers and wineries? I see a few possible avenues that could help.

  • Wineries: ask your bottle brokers and manufacturers about the recycled content of the bottles you buy, and demand bottles with as high a recycled content as possible. It’s clear to me that bottle producers and brokers are not sufficiently focused on increasing the recycled content of their products. If that’s the case, it’s because it isn’t being asked of them by their customers. Wineries of all sizes, but particularly larger ones, have significant market power. We’re not a large winery, but we will still buy something like 350,000 bottles this year. The larger the winery, the more power you have to move the needle. And for wineries who are a part of organizations like International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) and committed to achieving meaningful carbon footprint reductions by 2030, increasing the recycled content of your glass bottles should be a piece of the solution you’re pursuing, along with reducing the weight of those bottles and exploring alternate packaging. Because the glass bottle accounts for more than half the carbon footprint of the average California winery, it also offers the most important target for improvement. 
  • Sustainability certifiers: Add a recycled glass component to your winery metrics if you haven’t already. Most California wineries are a part of a sustainability program. But at least our local program (SIP Certified) doesn’t appear to have any mention of using recycled glass in your bottles in its protocols. I have my issues with sustainability programs, which I’ve shared at length here and elsewhere, but they remain a powerful tool in incentivizing the high percentage of wineries who participate in them to make incremental positive changes. (And wineries, if you’re a part of a sustainability program that doesn’t include anything about this, ask them why.)
  • Consumers: Ask the wineries that you patronize about the recycled content of their bottles. If you have a direct relationship with any wineries, reach out to them directly. Wineries are unusual consumer products in that most do have direct relationships with many of their customers. But if you don’t, ask your local retailer. If they don’t know, they can ask the distributor. The more people along the supply chain who are inquiring about this information, the more pressure there will be on bottle suppliers to use more recycled content, the more market there will be for recycled glass, which will make it more attractive for communities to recycle their waste glass rather than sending it to the landfill.
  • Everyone: Push your communities to be more transparent about the outcomes of their recycling programs. This is particularly important if you’re a part of a single-stream recycling system. If the recyclables are being sorted and used at a high rate, that’s great. But it’s likely not. If not, push for multi-stream recycling, or at least better education on why materials aren’t being used. Is it because of contamination? If so, encourage your community to share information about the costs of “wish-cycling”. Is it a cost decision? Find out what it would take to implement a multi-stream recycling program. There are real challenges here, particularly with the market for recycled commodities still developing. But the status quo, where local governments are quietly misleading their citizens about the efficiency of their recycling programs, isn’t viable.

We know that we can do better, because European countries have shown the way, typically with a combination of multi-stream recycling (to produce good supply) and industry mandates for recycled content (to ensure that there is demand). Neither of those are impossible here; they're just a question of focus and political will. Yes, distances are shorter in Europe; the more densely populated continent means that the shipping costs between consumer collection and glass processing are less. But that’s an incremental difference. If there were more demand from consumers and beverage producers, there would be more recycled glass products available. And that would create a positive feedback loop that would encourage better recycling decisions at the community level.

Glass RecyclingPhoto modified from the original on Wikimedia Commons by user Ecovidrio

We can do the same, or something similar, here. Let’s get to work.

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