Does it really make sense to recycle glass?
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.