A Kick in the Glass

Single-stream recycling is great, but it has downsides. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help.

Written by Colin Cogle.  Edited by the Connecticut Chapter.
This article was originally published in the issue of The Quinnehtukqut.

Glass jars ready for recycling.
Glass jars to be recycled. (Photo credit: Jo Ann Deasy)

In 2012, the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority (HRRA), which represents eleven towns in western , made the switch to single-stream recycling. That allows all recyclable materials to be mixed together in a single bin that is collected curbside or brought to a recycling center. Thus, instead of the homeowner sorting their recyclable waste prior to collection or drop-off, everything is sent as-is to a materials recovery facility (MRF), where machinery, cameras, and humans handle the onus of separation: they sort paper, cardboard, cans, plastics #1 through #7, glass, metal, e-waste (where accepted) and other materials so that a more-or-less pure pile of raw material can be shipped to its final destination.

Problems with Material Collections

Single-stream recycling, however, has a downside. Its convenience leads many people to try to be “green knights” and recycle dirty, mixed, or other items that may contaminate an MRF’s final products; for example, even a lone greasy pizza box or dirty glass jar could sully an otherwise acceptable pallet of the collected product. Susan V. Collins, director of the Container Recycling Institute, said in a interview with NPR, what single-stream wins in volume, it sacrifices in quality. As we often say, you can't unscramble an egg. One-fourth of material collected by recycling facilities has to be trashed.

Under China’s Green Fence and National Sword policies, the once-bountiful import of recycled materials has been severely curtailed, and those materials that do pass their customs must be more pure than before; minutes from the meeting of the HRRA say that recycled glass exported to China must be at least 99.5% pure. That leaves little room for labels, glue, caps and lids, and those little bits of ketchup that would have been rinsed out of the bottle if the consumer hadn't been in such a rush to get the kids off to school that morning. John Decker of Oak Ridge Waste and Recycling said succinctly during the HRRA’s meeting, [T]he ability to sell glass is gone. […] Most of the glass today, unfortunately, because it is so dirty and contaminated, has to be disposed of.

Preparing your Glass for Recycling

Before you try to recycle glass (or anything), do your best to make sure that it’s clean, the label has been removed, and the plastic or metal cap or lid has been separated. Afterwards, place borosilicate glass (Pyrex) in the trash: the changes it’s undergone to withstand high temperatures remain after being melted, making it non-recyclable by most facilities. Glass tends to retain its color after recycling, so sort by color if asked.

Once separated and finely crushed, the resulting cullet can be used to make fiberglass, flux for brick manufacture, Astroturf, artificial sand, countertops, water filtration media, abrasives, a substitute for pea gravel or crushed rock, landscaping or construction fill, or — of course — new glass.

Humans have been using glass for over six millennia. Let’s work together and make sure the same molecules are used for another six.


Originally published in The Quinnehtukqut, November 2018 issue
NPR: With 'Single-Stream' Recycling, Convenience Comes At A Cost
HRRA September 24, 2018 meeting notes