Glass Dismissed

Rich Trzupek is a veteran environmental consultant and senior advisor to the Heartland Institute. He is the author of the new book Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA is Ruining American Industry (Encounter Books).


Attacking someone’s religion is a practice guaranteed to elicit heated responses. This is certainly true when one dares to question the deeply-held tenants of the First Church of Environmentalism. The green commandment “thou shalt recycle” is an especially touchy subject. Yet, at the risk of damnation, let us consider another bit of blasphemy: there is no good reason — environmentally, economically or otherwise — to recycle glass.

One of the reasons that we are told we have to recycle is that it takes so long for many wastes to decompose in a landfill. This argument presupposes that there is something inherently wrong, even dangerous, about burying an inert material under the soil in a relatively small plot of land. The decomposition argument is not the only evidence used by recycling zealots to advance their case, but it’s an especially important exhibit.

Wastes that end up in landfills can be broken down into two broad categories: organic and inorganic. Organic wastes, like foodstuffs and paper, break down pretty quickly; twenty years is the generally-accepted rule of thumb decomposition period for organic waste in a landfill. Plastics are the organic exception to this rule, but that’s another column. Global warming alarmism has changed the way that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) views the organic decomposition process. When organic wastes decompose, they create methane, which can then be recovered and thus used to generate electricity. This energy is, according to EPA, renewable, greenhouse-gas-neutral power and is therefore prized. Indeed, under the proposed Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, power generated through the use of landfill gas would be exempt from what would effectively be a carbon tax.

Of course, burning those organic wastes directly is still officially frowned upon. That would be “incineration” and incineration is bad. The irony here is that it is enormously difficult to obtain EPA permission to separate the organic components of a waste stream and burn them “tomorrow” to generate renewable energy, but it’s perfectly fine – environmentally friendly even – to bury those same materials under a mound of earth and slowly recover their energy value over the course of two decades.

In general, inorganic wastes take a very long time to decompose. Inorganic wastes include metals like aluminum and steel and, to return to the focal point of this piece, glass. Depending on the source, the decomposition rate for glass is variously quoted as thousands to millions of years. The first question that leaps to mind is a basic one: Who cares? Undecomposed glass does not, can not, harm the environment or endanger human health by any possible stretch of the most vivid imagination. Chemically speaking, you can’t get much more inert than glass. Further, as I have previously pointed out, we’re hardly hurting for landfill space that an excess of glass waste could somehow use up.

The second question that quickly follows is this: What does the term “glass decomposition” even mean? Glass is primarily comprised of fused silica, i.e., sand. If the concern here is that it takes thousands or millions of years before silica crystals that make up the empty bottle of your favorite libation finally break apart into smaller pieces, here’s a suggestion: grab a ball-peen hammer and smash the offending bottle into smithereens. Problem solved. (Safety warning: please don’t forget to don your safety goggles should you perform this valuable environmental service).

The big problems with glass recycling are that: a) the primary raw material (sand) used in glass production is plentiful and cheap, and b) the supply of recycled glass far exceeds demand. There are a couple of reasons for the latter. The first has to do with the chemical composition of recycled glass. While glass is primarily made up of silica, it also contains trace amounts of other chemicals that are specific to the application in question. The chemical compositions of the glass in windshields, beverage containers and panes of window glass are all subtly different; each product is carefully engineered to optimize performance related to a specific end use.

Ground, recycled glass, called “cullet” in the industry, is a mish-mash of diverse chemical components. Accordingly, glass manufacturers can only use a small amount of cullet when producing their products. If they use too much cullet they run the risk of compromising the integrity of whatever they are manufacturing. In recognition of this inherent problem, recycling proponents have labored valiantly to create new markets for cullet, but those markets don’t even come close to addressing the gross over-supply of waste glass. When you drop that empty bottle of brew in your recycle bin, chances are that it will ultimately end up in a landfill.

The other problem with recycled glass involves color. Like it or not, manufacturers who utilize glass products are charged with producing specific colors. Heineken beer bottles are green, while Miller favors clear glass and Michelob chooses a brown hue for their brand of suds. When bottle manufacturers utilize cullet, they introduce a wild-card that has the potential to throw their color-matching train off track. Accordingly, color-matching is another reason why recycled glass is used sparingly. The problem is especially acute when it comes to green glass. While the market for recycled glass of any color is limited, the demand for green glass is practically non-existent. Some municipalities that require residents to recycle glass have tried to exempt green glass from their recycling ordinances, to little avail. Environmental groups will not tolerate such apostasy, even when blasphemy is grounded in marketplace reality.

Glass recycling programs are perhaps the ultimate example of environmentally inspired, pointless government intervention in the free market. A recycled commodity with essentially no value has been declared by government mandate an essential resource when it is anything but.

Want to prove the point? After you have dutifully set aside your recyclables, try this: sort out your aluminum cans and your glass bottles and place them in separate piles upon your front lawn. I’ll guarantee you that some enterprising scavenger will collect the aluminum in short order, because those cans will bring a profit. The glass bottles? They will go untouched, leaving your neighbors to wonder what in the heck you are trying to pull. When it comes to the environmental movement’s recycling dogma, one has to wonder the same thing.

  • badaboo

    A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.

    — Saul Bellow

    And on the issue of environmentalism that works BOTH ways . And of course each side has it's own "dogma /religion " as it were . LOL…and just about every other issue , so as EVERYBODY " drinks the Kool-Aid ", please know full well , that the only difference is the flavor you choose to drink .

  • KCDave

    As presented, I heartily agree. In fact the company in KC that has the contract with the city to collect the recyclables does not want glass. The trash trucks that pick up our recyclables are essentilly mobile trash compactors and when there is glass in the recycling "stream" it contaminates all the other recycling components (metal, paper, plastics) with glass shards reducing their value. Besides, the only place they could find to take the cullet was in St. Louis, so the transportation costs ate up any profit from the sale. Glass was not only worthless but caused the rest of the recyclables to be worth less.

  • KCDave

    In KC, we have the second largest brewery in Missosuri, the largest being the Austrian-owned Inbev-Anheiser in St. Louis. The KC brewery is Boulevard Brewery. The CEO, wanting to be a "good corporate citizen," formed a company called Ripple Glass and put large recycling bins around the city for people to dump their glass into. They built a facility to process the glass into cullet. Also in the Kansas City area. there are two manufacturers who can use high quality cullet – both of them make insulation products, read fiberglass, using sand as their raw material. One of these companies, I believe it is Owens-Corning, partnered with Ripple for the cullet. It remains to be seen whether the enterprise will last. But if the glass is brought to them by the consumer and they keep their cullet production costs down, it might work. This model won't work everywhere for reasons probably obvious – collection and transportation costs, availabililty of a market for the cullet, etc. But it might work for KC.

    • RossA

      Beer companies routinely recycle their glass bottles and were doing it before the current PC fads. Don't ask me about the economics. It makes breweries a mess…having to sterilize returned bottles and deal with breakage. Having worked at automating a brewery once, I have doubts but there has to be a reason.

  • walt

    Wow, has no one ever heard of [sandpaper] aka ground glass. Also used as an amalgum in cement and concrete products. The mind is a wonderland, I wish someone would use thiers……

  • AR44815

    And Walt, sometimes it is a wonder that some minds are just uninformed. Point 1. Sandpaper is not made of glass. Usually, garnet or other low grade minerals.
    Point 2. Consider the volumes. I mean really. How much sandpaper in the world compared to bottles? duh.

    • sanguine

      Well said.

      A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Perhaps Walt's can be recycled?

  • Suz K

    Tenets of a religion, tenants of a landlord. Precision of language.

  • http://www.intellectualconservative.com Steven Laib

    I recall from my youth when we used to "recycle" coke and other soda bottles by returning them to the place of purchase. I assume that the soda companies were taking their respective bottles back and reusing them.

    Agreed that we have a lot of other glass products out there, but why shouldn't there be a way for some "industry specific" glass products to be "recycled" into that industry. How many green wine bottles are emptied in California each day that could be refilled?

    If we are going to recycle glass it seems that we need to find a better way. Otherwise, forget it. After all, glass doesn't harm the environment.

  • http://www.crusaderknight.blogspot.com James Pawlak

    KEY POINT: What is the energy ratio between that used to produce one pound of glass from sand and other minerals VS. that used in recycling?

  • MaryJo

    Hey there, in the 60's we took our glass to a studio where they blew fanciful things out of our trash…sometimes we got to throw the bottles in the furnace. This group made witches' ball out of the recycled (witches' balls are useful to trap witches..they enter the ball and swell up so they can't get out) Maybe we could send some to the EPA people and clean house. Am still laughing about the sandpaper! Thanks to you all. MJ

  • Ben-David

    James Pawlak hit it on the nose:
    KEY POINT: What is the energy ratio between that used to produce one pound of glass from sand and other minerals VS. that used in recycling?
    - – - – - – - – - – - – -
    It takes just 1/3 the energy to melt waste cullet than it does to form glass in the first place. And as another poster pointed out – refilling bottles instead of remelting them would spread ALL the energy of making the bottle across several uses.

    This is an enormous energy savings.

    Other weak points of the article:

    - Color sorting is easily done by many automated bottle-recycling machines.

    - Most consumer food containers use the same basic type of glass. So do most window glazings. The two streams naturally take different routes to the recycling center, simplifying sorting.

    • Rick

      So your thinking is that the soda bottlers went from an efficient packaging method to a more inefficient, expensive method? Refillable bottles are more expensive than throw a ways which is why bottlers switched i the first place. Refillable bottles have to be heavier to withstand the abuse they get. Empty bottles have to somehow get from the consumer back to the bottling plant where they are sorted, cleaned in high temperature washers and then refilled.

  • USMCSniper

    Recycled glass, known in the industry as cullet, is a highly desirable and coveted raw material for the manufacture of glass. Using cullet to make, for example, new glass containers saves a lot of money and helps the environment because, among other benefits:

    Cullet costs less than virgin raw materials
    Cullet prolongs furnace life because it melts at a lower temperature
    Cullet's lower melting point results in less energy consumption in the manufacturing process.
    Cullet use reduces air pollution in the manufacturing process
    In order for glass cullet to be used in glass manufacturing, it must be free of contaminants such as metals, plastics and ceramics. In addition, because there was previously no other option, glass makers have also required the glass cullet to be color separated. Amber (brown) cullet would be used to make amber bottles, green cullet for green bottles and flint (clear) cullet for flint bottles.

    • Rick

      it's almost like you didn't read the article. If cullet is "a highly desirable and coveted raw material" why does it have no value? Ever seen anyone pulling empty bottles out of trash cans?

      • USMCSniper

        Glass makers use Cullet for the reasons cited, Cullet costs less than virgin raw materials, Cullet prolongs furnace life because it melts at a lower temperature, Cullet's lower melting point results in less energy consumption in the manufacturing process. Cullet use reduces air pollution in the manufacturing process as well.

    • Scott

      Nice of you to provide the Green Mountian Glass, LLC point of view. Copied word for word. See here: http://www.greenmountainglass.com/pages/GlassFact

      While I applaud their efforts in overcoming the issues noted in the article, the fact remains that there is more recycle glass than the industry can use. When that changes, the demand will go up.

  • sanguine

    If there is a market for a recycled product, and the economics are beneficial, then
    the market will generate a supply of the material to be recycled.

    If the economics of recycling aren't there, then the Govt. wastes our money to try
    and generate a market. Which costs all of us.

    Many products, Aluminium cans, some cardboard, etc…have been recycled for years without any influence from the Govt. Why? Because the economics make it viable.

    Other products, glass, plastic. etc…will never be recycled economically, and therefore
    no private industry generates a supply. The Govt. (environmentalists solution?) Raise the cost of the raw material to the point that recycling will work. This of course destroys the very market from which the recycling souce is derived.

    Govt. never creates, it only destroys.

    • badaboo

      Only God creates , man makes things from that which has already been created . And of course "governments do nothing but get involved in dark global conspiracies .
      Hey man , have you seen the price of sand lately ? Ya think someone 's trying to corner the market .

  • Bones

    The sound of a glass bottle thrown from a car and hitting the street is much more satisfying than the clunk of a plastic bottle or the hollow tink of a can.

  • Harold

    A lot of people seem to forget the original purpose of container deposit laws. It had nothing to do with recycling.

    It had everything to do with reducing litter alongside the highway. The laws have been highly effective at doing that. If you're my age or older (54)., you'll remember litter alngside the road was a highly visible problem. It isn't so much anymore.

    The original purpose is why I support extending deposit laws to juice and water bottles. When the laws were originally passed, almost no one drank juice or bottled water in serving size containers. Now they do. If you walk along a highway or bike path or pedestrian trail, the containers that lay empty and uncollected are ones without deposits- juice and water bottles.

  • Melissa

    Glass in a landfill may not be an environmental hazard, but when landfills do fill up (which they are), who wants the new one to be sited in their backyard. Siting a landfill is a huge obstacle because no one wants it built near them.

    Actually, the demand for recycled glass far exceeds the supply. I visited a glass manufacturing company a couple of years ago, and they said they can't get enough recycled glass. They want more because it reduces their energy costs and prolongs the life of their furnaces.

    Regarding the problem of glass contaminating the other recyclables (paper, plastic, etc.), the problem goes both ways. The great and wonderful invention of single stream recycling is causing contamination all across the board. I've visited several sorting facilities and the amount of contamination after separation was unbelievable.

    A private company located in St. Louis collects recycled glass and supplies cullet to manufacturers across the country (by rail). They can't get enough glass. So, seems there is a market for it. Manufacturers perfer it.

  • Malaysia

    1) Maybe you missed the last Trzupek post about landfills. This is not the issue.

    2) If there is a market, people will buy the glass. Unfortunately, there is not.

  • JeffT

    The entire environmental movement is built on one lie after another. The global warming hysteria speaks for itself. But the reason we have to recycle everything is because of that damned garbage scow from NY that "couldn't find a home" when looking for a place to dump. The implication was that there "was no room at the inn (meaning another landfill)" for dumping. The truth is the scow's owners had loaded much medical waste and cities refused it for that reason. The story become one of a shortage of landfill space and the myth was carried by the ever-willing media and viola, recycling was given the boost it needed. Another lie that became truth. Kind of like the 3,000,000 homeless that turned out to be about 450,000. Or 46 million uninsured that is closer to 7-10 million. But why let facts get in the way of an ideology? Never let a good crisis, even a fake one, go to waste.

  • PBJL

    Green is the NEW RED!!!

  • Axel Bavaria

    I guess many people are being fed up with fake environmental protection policies, like the ozone layer hype or nowadays the greenhouse / global warming /CO2 scam.

    This is completely understandable, and I'm all against such scams, which are only designed to cripple our economy and deflect from real problems of all kinds. But you're throwing out the baby with the bath if your reaction is to discard all kinds of environmental protection measures.

    If the recycling is done properly, it does pay off very well, as some commentators have pointed out already. In Europe, the different sorts of trash are collected in different containers (one for glass, another for paper, yet another for plastics, one for metals and one for the dirty trash). That requires different recollection vehicles, but comes down to the same in the end, since the different vehicles can collect the waste in a bigger time fram, i.e. if a conventional one-for-all recollection truck had to come four time a month to collect the trash, now four vehicles come per month (one for dirty mixed trash, others for glass, paper, and plastics), so the operating cost is the same. Besides it saves a lot of work in the processing of the waste at the recycling facilities, with everything being pre-processed by the consumer.

    The recycled glass is processed automatically in high-tech plants, which smash it, wash it to remove labels, dirt and plastics, sort it according to its color (flint, green, brown), remove the metals and then ground it to cullet. All a completely automated process with very low costs, except the initial investment. And the glass manufacturers are buying it all up, since it saves a lot of energy and preserves the furnaces. Glass doesn't wander into European landfills at all anymore, it's completely recycled. And the beauty of it is that like metals, glass can be recycled without any quality degradation, contrary to plastics.

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  • dashing_boy

    I’ll guarantee you that some enterprising scavenger will collect the aluminum in short order, because those cans will bring a profit. The glass bottles? taxi bourgas sunny beach