EUGENE – Tens of thousands of Eugene and Springfield residents routinely rinse and set aside nondeposit wine, juice and other bottles and jars, then put them out for curbside recycling in specially marked boxes.
Recycling crews haul off the glass. But that doesn’t mean the glass ends up being smelted and made into new bottles and jars.
Rather, all of it is trucked to the Coffin Butte landfill near Corvallis, or occasionally to other landfills, where it is dumped, crushed and spread out on landfill roads, or layered to help with landfill drainage.
That doesn’t conform to the ideals held by recycling purists. The theory behind collecting used glass is that glass manufacturers can save big amounts of energy by using waste glass in the glassblowing process, rather than making new glass from scratch from silica. Using waste glass cuts energy costs by a third or more, a good thing for society as a whole, experts say.
But for garbage haulers, it’s often cheaper to send waste glass to landfills for roads or drainage use. And that’s legal under Oregon’s recycling rules.
“We allow it, although honestly we’d like to get rid of that use (in landfills) entirely. It’s a bad image, using something in a landfill,” said Peter Spendelow, a solid waste analyst with the state Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates landfills and recycling.
Sending curbside-collected glass to landfills “really doesn’t have any environmental benefit,” Spendelow said.
“If you’re going to have curbside collection for bottles and send them to a landfill (for roads), why not have curbside collection for rocks?”
The crux of the problem is that while many residents are eager to recycle, it can be expensive getting certain materials – especially glass – into a condition that manufacturers want.
Under curbside pickup programs in Eugene and Springfield, residents mix different colors of glass – brown, green, clear – into a single pickup box. Sometimes they toss in other waste, too – ceramics, plastics, metal, cardboard.
That mixing of glass colors makes it difficult and expensive to send the bottles to facilities that would melt them down and make them into new glass.
Glass smelters need glass to be sorted into colors. Color impurities spoil a batch. And sorting costs money.
So instead, all bottles collected curbside by Sanipac and Lane Apex in Eugene and Springfield head to a landfill, typically Coffin Butte, said Rick Ritz, site manager for the Glenwood Ecosort facility, which markets recyclables collected in the curbside programs.
“We send 250 to 300 tons a month of mixed glass (from Eugene-Springfield) to Coffin Butte,” Ritz said.
That’s been the case for several years, after problems arose with processors in the Portland area who accepted bottles for remanufacturing into new bottles, and Ecosort stopped sending glass to Portland, he said.
Sending the glass to Coffin Butte is the cheapest legal option, so that’s what Ecosort does.
Santa Clara resident Dan Revell said he’s “shocked” to learn that curbside-collected glass goes into road building at landfills.
A dedicated recycler, he said he has long assumed the glass he sets out for pickup was “being processed and made into new glass.”
“We’re wasting our time even putting it out in our totes if, at best, it’s going to be turned into road material,” he said.
Revell stepped into the used-glass-disposal quagmire earlier this fall when he spotted huge mounds of used glass bottles mixed with some other recyclables and trash freshly dumped at the Delta Sand & Gravel construction debris landfill in Eugene, and complained to regulators.
The material had been hauled there by Ecosort for Delta to use for road-building, Ritz said.
Ritz said his company has now switched back to sending all its curbside-collected glass to Coffin Butte.
Eugene and Springfield aren’t the only communities shipping curbside-collected glass to landfills.
Statewide, curbside pickup programs in 2010 – the most recent year for which numbers are available – collected about 51,528 tons of nondeposit glass bottles and jars, Spendelow said. But nearly half that tonnage was sent to landfills for crushing into roadbeds or drainage uses, he said. The rest was color-sorted and remanufactured into glass products, he said.
The DEQ permits a select number of landfills around the state, including Coffin Butte, to accept waste glass, Spendelow said.
Some at the DEQ aren’t thrilled with sending glass to landfills. But the agency isn’t planning to ban the practice and force recyclers to send the material to remanufacturers, said Gene Wong, a solid waste project manager at DEQ’s Eugene office.
The optimum outcome is for curbside-collected glass to be made into new glass, he acknowledged.
“Everyone’s trying to do the right thing, but technological and economic factors make it more difficult to do that,” he said.
Julie Daniel, a recycling expert and executive director at BRING Recycling near Eugene, said she was unaware that local curbside-collected glass was being sent to landfills.
“I’m disappointed that the market is such that we’re not able to see it go back into making glass,” she said.
But glass is inert, so putting it in a landfill “is not harming human health,” she said.