CHEYENNE, Wyo. – After working out at a gym, Amy Mahaffy dropped off a half-dozen glass jars in a city recycling container before heading home.
The containers, however, won’t be recycled any time soon. Their destination: a mound of glass at the city landfill, an ever-growing monument to the difficulty many communities across the country face in finding a market for a commodity that’s too cheap for its own good.
“We are stockpiling it in a desperate search for a market,” landfill foreman Monty Landers said.
Cheyenne hasn’t recycled the glass it collects – 9 tons a week – for years.
The economics of glass recycling have been marginal for some time.
Nationwide, only about 25 percent of glass containers are recycled. That’s compared with 31 percent of plastic containers, 45 percent of aluminum cans and 63 percent of steel cans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In North Idaho, Kootenai County gave up collecting glass last year. In Oregon, which was the first of 11 states to adopt a bottle deposit law in 1971, Deschutes County stockpiled 1,000 tons of glass at its landfill before finally finding a use for it a couple years ago – as fill beneath an area for collecting compost.
Glass also has piled up at the landfill serving Albuquerque, N.M., where officials this year announced that a manufacturer of water-absorbing horticultural stones would eventually use up their stockpiles. New York City gave up glass recycling from 2002 to 2004 because officials decided it was too costly.
In a sense, glass ought to be the perfect commodity to recycle. It can be recycled an infinite number of times. Melting down one glass bottle and making another isn’t particularly complicated or especially costly.
The challenge is that the main ingredient in glass, sand, is plentiful and cheap – often cheaper than cullet, which is glass that has been prepared for recycling.
Used glass must be sorted by color and cleaned before it can be crushed into cullet that is suitable for recycling into new containers.
Another cost is transportation. The farther a community is from glass processors and container manufacturers, he said, the more expensive it is to recycle it.
One of the region’s largest glass recyclers, an O-I Inc. bottling manufacturing plant, is only 50 miles south of Cheyenne in Windsor, Colo. That plant gets the vast majority of its cullet not from Wyoming or even Colorado, but from the 11 states with bottle deposit laws, company spokeswoman Stephanie Johnston said.
Bottles returned for 5-cent or 10-cent deposits are kept sorted by color and usually haven’t been mixed with other recyclable materials or trash. As a result, cullet produced from such glass is more likely to meet the company’s very high standards – completely free of paper, plastic, metal or other contaminants, she said.
“Our interest in recycled content is high. But the way the system is currently set up, it’s hard for us to get quality, clean cullet right now,” Johnston said. “We’re trying to find some ways to increase the amount of quality cullet from the states that don’t have bottle bills.”
Johnston said O-I prefers to use cullet rather than sand because cullet requires less energy to melt down.
The city plans to buy a glass pulverizer and is considering at least two uses for the glass it plans to grind into a fine consistency – in place of sand in road construction and at playgrounds, said Dennis Pino, director of the city sanitation department.
“It’s not dangerous. It’s been tested – it works great,” he said. “We don’t want to just keep stockpiling it. We want to find another use for it.”
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