July 3, 2011 in City

Glass struggle: Spokane’s hard-to-use resource

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Picture story: Glass recycling program
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A massive pile of glass waits to be recycled at the North County Transfer Station. City leaders plan to use it in roadbeds and as landscaping material.
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Map of this story's location

Spokane’s giant stockpile of beer bottles and other glass is about to shrink.

Faced with fewer options and higher costs for recycling glass, in late 2008 the city began taking glass collected through curbside recycling and stockpiling it near its waste transfer station in Colbert.

Instead of paying to transport the glass out of state and sometimes out of the country to fiberglass and bottle manufacturers, the city has kept it for use in Spokane.

Except for one road project and a few experiments, however, the mound has mostly grown.

The main pile of mixed colored glass, collected at the curb in Spokane, is 15 to 20 feet high and larger than a football field.

“We don’t really want to throw a useful resource into the incinerator or haul it off to a landfill if we can find other uses for it,” said Mayor Mary Verner.

City officials say that after two years of growth, the glass pile finally will start to shrink this summer thanks to plans to use glass in the roadbed for Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The city also has experimented with using it for landscaping and grinding it down and substituting it for sand on icy roads.

“We have a material that we need to find better ways of managing and we’re trying to do that,” said Geoffrey Glenn, Spokane’s disposal superintendent. “We want to be fiscally good stewards, and we also want to make sure we’re doing things that at least have an eye toward sustainability.”

In recent years, communities across the country have struggled to make glass recycling pay off. Because it’s heavy, transportation costs are steep and the demand for glass cullet – broken glass that can be recycled – is relatively low compared to recycled metal and plastic.

Recycling experts say there’s a big benefit in recycling glass because glass bottles can be recycled back into bottles indefinitely, using significantly less energy than making new glass from sand. 

States like Washington and Idaho are at a further disadvantage in finding markets to accept glass because Oregon and British Columbia require deposits for beverage bottles. States with deposit laws usually provide manufacturers with glass that is easier to use because it is cleaner.

These kinds of issues have led many communities, including Kootenai County, to stop recycling glass. Without a glass recycling program, about 6 percent of the trash headed to the Kootenai County’s Fighting Creek landfill is glass. That’s three times higher than the amount of glass in Spokane County’s garbage stream.

Even though most trash in Spokane County is burned in the Waste-to-Energy Plant, glass in the waste stream in Spokane eventually heads to landfills. That’s because glass doesn’t burn in the incinerator and is shipped by train along with ash from the incinerator to a landfill.

The city first used glass in a paving project in 2009. Glass was crushed, mixed with sand and gravel and used as a roadbed for Market Street in Hillyard. City Engineer Mike Taylor said the roadbed mixed with glass worked just as well as the usual roadbed.

“We could use it all,” Taylor said of the bottles sitting in Colbert. “If they had no other use for it, we could probably use it in our city streets just fine.”

The city recently got a bid of about $40,000 to grind up 3,000 tons of glass bottles – about a third of the Colbert glass mound – to use in roadbeds. Glenn said the city wants to start using the pile to prevent massive buildup but doesn’t want to use it all until other options have been fully explored.

Glass collected by Waste Management at the curb in Spokane Valley and Spokane County is broken down and used as aggregate for roads at the company’s Graham Road Landfill. Ken Gimpel, municipal relations manager, said it costs Waste Management less than half as much to use the glass for roads rather than simply throwing it away.

Glass paths and landscaping

Using glass in paving projects isn’t new.

Some of the pedestrian paths built for Expo ’74 were built using recycled bottles collected at special events specifically to make “glassphalt” for the World’s Fair. About a 20-foot section of glassphalt is still identifiable on a path just south of the U.S. Pavilion.

“It’s just like any other asphalt,” said Taylor Bressler, the planning and development manager for Spokane Parks. “It’s held up real well.”

The city also has experimented with creating glass mulch. The glass is broken in a way that doesn’t leave sharp edges and used in place of rocks or wood mulch.

The city ripped out overgrown shrubs and installed glass mulch earlier this year within medians at the eastbound exit of Interstate 90 at Division Street.

The project was mocked by mayoral candidate David Condon in his campaign kickoff speech in May.

“What are we doing? We’re chasing political fads,” Condon said. “We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on bike lanes. We’re putting crushed glass in medians, and to what end?”

In an interview Condon said he understood the need to re-landscape the median, but that the change wasn’t designed in a way that gives visitors a proper welcome to the city.

“It just doesn’t seem consistent for the branding of the city as ‘Near Nature, Near Perfect,’ ” Condon said.

Verner argues that the change is not only welcoming, but speaks to Spokane’s commitment to nature. She added that because it was designed and constructed by city workers using glass that the city already owned, the cost was minimal and upkeep costs will be less because it won’t need to be watered.

City Planner Dave Steele, a licensed landscape architect, designed the glass project at the freeway exit. He said he worked to create organic shapes using clear and green glass mulch.

The city also has used glass mulch in a more expensive landscaping project in the recycling drop-off area at the Waste-to-Energy Plant.

The Spokane City Council this month unanimously approved a $42,500 contract to build the garden, which uses glass mulch and other reused material, including shower doors and concrete.

“It would have probably cost more money to install grass,” Glenn said.

Utilities Director Dave Mandyke said the city has a summer intern who will focus on finding potential uses for glass. One idea, he said, is supplying glass mulch to a local landscaping company to find out if there’s a market for it.

The city has added a separate bin for blue bottles at its transfer stations (it previously had only bins for clear, green and brown glass) based on demand experienced by glass mulch manufacturers in other parts of the country.

“Everybody wants blue,” Glenn said.

City officials acknowledge that they haven’t done a detailed financial analysis of the glass program, but they believe it’s much cheaper than other options – including paying $98 a ton to dispose of it in the regular trash.

“It’s probably a back-of-the-envelope analysis,” Verner said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of analysis to say there’s the expense of accumulating it somewhere and paying someone to haul it off ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ or ‘Let’s do something with it locally.’ ”

More glass, dirtier glass

Spokane’s glass could soon become more difficult to use or sell.

Next year, the city is moving to a modern, single-stream curbside program. Recyclables will be placed in one cart, dumped into one truck and sorted in a new materials recovery facility next to the Waste-to-Energy Plant.

The new system will save the city money and is expected to increase residential recycling. But if glass is mixed in, the paper and plastic collected likely will be contaminated with broken glass – causing headaches for paper mills and other manufacturers and the potential for more waste as batches are discarded, according to a 2010 report by the state Department of Ecology. That study recommends that glass be collected separately.

Matt Stern, Waste Management’s area recycling manager, downplays problems and said the new plant will have state-of-the art technology that will result in little contamination.

“Glass is easy material to separate,” he said.

Most paper recycled at the curb in Spokane is used by Inland Empire Paper Co., a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Inland paper is committed to recycling Spokane’s paper, but only if contamination is kept low, said Tom Baranowski, president and general manager of Fiber Reclaim, the Inland subsidiary that purchases paper to recycle.

“It’s silly to move that stuff out of the city,” Baranowski said. “But if the quality and the cost precludes us from that, the mill’s got to do what is financially responsible.”

He said the contamination rate in the paper the mill currently buys from the city is less than 2 percent. Contamination rates from paper sorted at a modern materials recovery facility are usually between 5 and 8 percent, Baranowski said.

If a batch of paper has too much contamination, a mill has to pay to throw it away because it can damage expensive equipment, he said.

Glass in the trash

Some trash systems, including Tacoma’s, have moved to modern recycling systems but still collect glass separately at the curb. Others have suspended glass collection but offer drop-off locations.

“Some things just don’t play well in the system,” said Shannon McClelland, environmental planner at the Department of Ecology. “Glass is one of them.”

McClelland lives in Olympia, which collects glass in a single stream. She said she never puts glass in her recycling cart and instead drops it off at collection sites.

As a recycling advocate, McClelland has surprising advice if residents can’t separate glass from other recyclables.

“If your choice is to put it in the garbage or put it in a commingled system, put it in the garbage,” she said.

McClelland said it likely would take action by the state Legislature to make glass recycling attractive in Washington, perhaps by setting a deposit for bottles as Oregon and other states have done.

“You could truck it across the country 10 times before it would lose its environmental benefit,” she said. “Cost is another matter.”

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