New drop off locations have opened in recent weeks to collect glass recyclables, as many Allegheny County municipalities no longer provide curbside glass pickup. It’s part of a collaborative effort between local municipalities and the Pennsylvania Resources Council.
But why did communities outside of Pittsburgh stop collecting glass in residential bins a few years ago? The answer is complicated, according to Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, which represents companies that make glass bottles, including raw materials, and recycled glass.
First, DeFife says it’s not as big of a movement as news reports would have us think.
“I think it’s overblown how many communities have dropped glass, especially nationally. It’s still widely recycled at curbside,” DeFife said.
Pittsburgh residents, for example, still place all their recyclables conveniently into one bin – the plastics, paper, metals and glass are picked up together at the curbside.
“In the Pittsburgh area, there were a couple of years where many communities had to make that decision, and it traces back to a couple very specific instances and decisions that some companies made,” he said. “And I don’t think that the good people of the southwestern Pennsylvania area, the Pittsburgh area, have been given the full explanation about what really happened.”
DeFife is talking about the 2018 decision by Waste Management, which runs a recycling materials sorting facility on Neville Island, to stop accepting glass. That meant its contracts with southwestern Pennsylvania communities, including dozens in the South Hills and elsewhere, no longer included glass pickup. The company said at the time that glass is heavily contaminated, and must be processed several times. It also said broken glass pieces contaminate other recyclables.
“Glass is one of those commodities coming out of a single stream that always has more contamination than any of the other commodities, because that’s just how the system works,” DeFife said.
He explains that when glass, plastic and metals are all mixed together, and collected on the back of a truck with a hydraulic press, it compacts them for transport.
“They smash it, they jumble it, and then they take it to a facility, to un-smash it and then sort it,” he said. “So glass does break in there, especially if you put it with a really strong hydraulic press, it’s going to break for sure.”
The broken glass can get embedded in the paper and other materials, which is bad for those products. It’s bad for the glass too, because even after sorting, it can be contaminated by plastic pens, bottle caps and other small items.
People used to separate their recyclables at home, but now many places are used to one bin, a single stream of recyclables.
“The argument twenty or so years ago for single stream was efficiency on collection. ‘I’m going to send one truck to collect it all, less truck traffic,’” DeFife explained.
Not many options for municipalities
In Pennsylvania, municipal recycling programs must include at least three materials for pickup. But according to DeFife, communities are limited by what the recycling company offers to collect.
“So if I really want aluminum, plastic and cardboard, then I can limit myself to that, and still keep my license to be a material recovery facility or a recycling center,” he said.
And some recycling companies have decided that glass is not the material they want, because of the contamination issues, and because it’s heavy. If a local recycling company decides not to pick it up at curbside, municipalities have little choice.
“There’s usually not that many options for them to compete on a contract with, right? They’re lucky if they have two options on haulers,” he said. “There’s not much authority at the county level or at the regional level to create a system that works across the entire region.”
DeFife explains that some companies own both the recycling facilities and the landfills, so they’re happy no matter where the materials go.
“If the same company owns the sorting facility and the landfill, then there’s a disincentive to do glass well, because they’re going to get paid by weight for all the material that gets dumped in the landfill, and they’re also going to get paid to send the material through the recycling stream,” he said.
The Department of Environmental Protection, which regulates recycling in Pennsylvania, addresses this issue, according to spokesperson Lauren Fraley. “DEP provides incentives (Recycling Performance Grants) to local governments based on the tonnage recycled. So, there is a logic that a community would have a greater incentive to recycle heavier items because they’ll increase the overall tonnage collected,” she said in an email.
Making the case to recycle glass
Glass doesn’t break down in the environment, so once it ends up in the landfill, it will stay there in perpetuity. But it is a reusable material, that is remade into new bottles and jars, and fiberglass – right in the region. There are three glass recycling facilities in western Pennsylvania, and one in eastern Ohio. DeFife points out that those plants provide jobs. But they need quality materials that can come from the recycling stream. The Glass Packaging Institute wants Pennsylvania to divert more glass from the landfill.
“If we want it recycled, we need to say that it needs to be recycled and to do that you want to largely keep it out of the landfill. I’m not talking about a ban, but standards for what can go into landfill, standards for…contamination,” he said.
The GPI works to educate policy makers in cities and counties to better understand waste and recycling contracts, and to find new paths for glass recycling. It’s also pushing for regional recycling management.
“It’s [recycling] often not regulated like a utility like electric or water gas, but it serves largely the same purpose. And so I think if there were some better, higher standards for performance then that would increase the quality of the material coming out of the system. And increase the availability of recycled content that can be used to manufacture new products,” DeFife said.