Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Glass continues to be the unloved member of the recycling family.
Unlike plastic, glass is nontoxic and can be recycled again and again. But plastic is cheap to make, ship and store, prompting beverage and food makers to turn to plastic as a way to boost profits. In January, Snapple became the latest drink maker to switch its bottles from glass to plastic.
Slumping demand for glass prompted a bottle-maker in Milford, Mass., to shut down last month. The unexpected closure terminated 250 jobs at a company that had been making mostly beer bottles since 1973. Much of the crushed glass, or cullet, for those bottles came from Rhode Island and recycling centers across New England via Strategic Materials Inc., a recycled-glass processor and distributor in Franklin, Mass.
“Regional demand for recycled glass has collapsed over the last several months," Joseph Reposa, executive director at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), said during an April 4 Senate hearing.
Many of New England’s glass-recycling programs are paralyzed. The town of Hookset, N.H., recently told residents to start throwing their glass in the trash. In Rhode Island, glass is stockpiling at RIRRC's Johnston facility, but the state’s primary recycling center wants consumers and businesses to continue putting glass bottles and jars in their recycling bins.
Massachusetts has offered cities and towns temporary waivers to throw away their glass collected through recycling programs.
The setback with glass highlights the complexities of recycling and how the loss of a link in a capitalist-driven waste-management chain can undermine the process.
Recycled glass is less expensive than raw silica for making new bottles. Cullet is also used to manufacture fiber optics, reflective clothing and abrasive products. It's also used for road construction. But glass can be difficult and expensive to clean, sort and recycle. Broken glass can “contaminate” other recyclables if it's collected through a single-stream collection programs, such as Rhode Island’s, and prevent other items from getting recycled.
In Rhode Island, the collection of glass bottles and jars has dropped in recent years, from 23,000 tons to 9,000 tons annually. While it waits for a new entity to accept its glass, RIRRC can dump the crushed glass in the Central Landfill. However, it can save money by using glass to replace a portion of the daily cover for fresh waste deposited in the landfill, a practice common in waste-disposal operations. Currently, a 6-inch layer of low-grade soil is applied to the top of the Central Landfill to control debris, odors and pests. The General Assembly removed glass as an acceptable material for the daily cover after a protracted odor problem in 2011.
“Glass poses zero negative effects for health and safety. It’s inert material. It’s widely used for this purpose,” Reposa said.
The General Assembly seems poised to lift the 7-year-old ban. RIRRC will then save some $50,000 a year by replacing some of the soil fill with a mix of crushed glass, which it receives at no-cost through recycling collection.
“Without passage of this, we’ll have to eventually landfill (the glass),” Reposa said.
The Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture voted to advance the bill (S2653) to the Senate floor for a scheduled vote on April 11. The House Corporations Committee is scheduled to vote on its bill (H7930) on April 10.