A heavy-weight but lower value commodity stream, recycled glass can contribute to the bottom line.
Glass used to be a challenge for Cal Tigchelaar, president of Resource Management Cos. (RMC), based in Chicago Ridge, Illinois. Tigchelaar says he got into the glass processing sector back in 2007 when the processing company he sent his glass to could no longer handle all of RMC’s glass. RMC operates three large material recovery facilities (MRFs) in the Midwest, including one in Chicago Ridge.
Before then, the recycler was dependent on two glass processing companies in the area to take the company’s glass, for which RMC paid a tipping fee. The arrangement worked until one processor acquired the other, tightening capacities and driving up fees, Tigchelaar says. Eventually, the lone processing company could no longer handle RMC’s volume in a timely manner.
“One day I was looking at 10,000 tons backlogged on our site,” recalls Tigchelaar. “At that point I just made the decision.” As Tigchelaar points out, his plan wasn’t simply to process glass but also to sort and upgrade it in ways that would yield a variety of product streams with a range of applications.
“We needed to get control of that ourselves, because no matter what we did in the past, we never had enough capacity to handle our volume,” Tigchelaar says.
Now, he says, RMC is completely self-reliant, operating its glass recycling line as a sideline to its main recycling business. “We don’t have to depend on several companies,” he says. “We can absorb everything we produce, plus we can recycle a little from others.”
RMC’s story seems to exemplify many of the issues that characterize the glass recycling and processing business: With the high capital investment needed to enter the field, it isn’t a line of work all MRFs want to assume. This low-margin business requires sufficient volumes to make the processing worthwhile, plus a ready set of accessible consumers in need of the recycled cullet.
A place in the stream
Tigchelaar recognizes that in comparison to the other commodities RMC produces, recycled glass is on the low end of the value spectrum. He says the value of single-stream materials ranges from $1,600 per ton on the high-end (aluminum) to negative $50 for nonrecyclables. Meanwhile, sorted glass cullet checks in at about $100 per ton on average.
“At the end of the day, we’ve extracted an average of so much a ton,” Tigchelaar says. “Glass is about 10 percent by weight of the incoming single stream, so it’s something pretty substantial. If you’ve got to pay to get rid of it, it’s a lot of money.”
For these reasons, Tigchelaar views glass as one product out of a dozen that comprise RMC’s portfolio.
“We don’t look at it as a standalone thing, but as a part of our entire recycling operation,” he says. “Now, instead of having to pay $10 to $15 a ton to another company to take it off our hands, we’re selling it for $85 to $125, less the costs we have to put it into it.”
RMC’s glass processing line is located at the company’s main facility in Chicago Ridge, Illinois. Glass generated at its other two MRFs, in Plainfield, Illinois, and Earth City, Missouri, is transported there for processing too. Tigchelaar says the company also accepts a small amount of mixed glass (which he calls “single-stream three-mix”) from other MRFs. All told the company processes about 8,000 tons of mixed glass per month.
Tigchelaar says the pieces of mixed broken glass are normally 2 inches in diameter and smaller, and the mix typically contains pieces of debris such as shredded paper, bottle caps and small metal pieces.
“Anything that’s smaller than 2 inches ends up in there,” he says. By weight, this mix is 85 percent glass and 15 percent other residue. Because the paper takes up a lot of space, though, it can comprise about 40 percent of the material’s mass, he adds.
The company started sorting glass in 2007, beginning with a grinding operation and adding optical sorting lines and a sandblast media production plant later.
RMC’s process, with equipment from Binder of Austria, begins with an isolation process where moisture is removed from the stream. It also is sent through a vacuum, blower, magnet and eddy current to remove nonglass materials. Now the cleaned glass is ready for optical sorting by color, with the clear glass heading to bottle makers and the colored glass reserved for fiberglass and other applications.
Smaller pieces of glass, those less than one-quarter inch in diameter, a size which is too small to be optically sorted, are screened off and ground into sand for use in fiberglass insulation, he says.
A third application for this sandy material is graded sandblast media, which RMC has been producing for a few years now. The sand is sifted into various sizes and used for sandblasting of such structures as bridges and ship hulls. Tigchelaar says this limited and seasonal application is a higher-end use for the material, because of the processing needed and because it must be kept dry, unlike sorted bottle glass. But, he says, the material is gaining traction over standard blast media made from coal slag.
Tigchelaar says the process uses the same sandy stream produced for the fiberglass market, with the addition of a screening process; but, he adds, “the value of it is significantly more.” Therefore the product can command more revenue for the same material stream. The material is typically sold by 1-ton super sack quantities. “There is more material handling,” he says, “but you get more money for it.”
What’s more, RMC has even found a market for the glass dust particles smaller than 100 mesh, some of which is produced during the grinding process. This grit is used by carpet manufacturers as an additive to carpet backing, Tigchelaar says.
“We don’t produce a lot,” says Tigchelaar, “but it’s also on the higher end with the sandblast product.”
He says he believes the powder helps the manufactures save on epoxy costs while also adding some desirable qualities and allowing them to up their recycled content.
Committed to glass
Another company that has similarly invested in glass processing is Rumpke Waste & Recycling, headquartered in Cincinnati. The company has a 25,000-square-foot glass processing facility in Dayton, Ohio, that, like RMC, can process postconsumer glass for use in fiberglass and bottle manufacturing industries.
Ben Pedigo, corporate recycling sales coordinator for Rumpke, says the Dayton facility is one of only a handful of such operations in North America.
“At a time when many large recycling processors continue to struggle with handling glass, Rumpke made a decision more than 10 years ago to enter the glass processing field.” Pedigo says its decision was based on making sure the weighty material continues to find end markets and be diverted from landfills.
He also points to a 2011 study conducted by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources indicating that only 5 percent of glass generated by residents was recycled.
To increase recycling levels, the company has spent around $5 million on upgrades at the Dayton facility as well as on precleaning systems installed in its Cincinnati and Columbus MRFs to clean mixed glass prior to its delivery to the Dayton facility. The company also received a $500,000 grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency toward the purchase of optical sorting equipment.
The Dayton facility can process 4,000 tons of glass per month with a throughput of 25 tons per hour.
In a YouTube video focusing on Rumpke’s glass processing system, Steve Sargent, director of Rumpke Recycling, explains that while 10 years ago, finding a market for recycled glass was challenging, with the systems Rumpke now has in place, the markets are there.
“We made the investment, and now we’ve actually developed a market for glass,” he says. “As much as we can produce, we can sell.”
Today, Rumpke works with third-party MRFs and solid waste districts to process their glass in addition to its own collected material, says David Schwendeman, corporate recycling marketing manager for Rumpke.
Schwendeman concedes there are different processing strategies depending on the end use. “In some instances, Rumpke has had to add more optical scanners, manual sorting and grinding to meet market specifications,” he explains.
For Tigchelaar, having a range of glass products to offer is important. He says about half of his material ends up as bottle cullet, while 40 percent goes for insulation and the remaining 10 percent is split between sandblast media and carpet applications.
“You have to be prepared to figure out what you’re going to do, not just with the bigger particles of glass, but with the smaller particles,” he says.
If grinding is part of the process, Tigchelaar says, the requirements can be significant.
“We have to meet a specification that’s extremely rigid and not easy in terms of organic contamination,” he notes. For instance, labels and paper have to be removed, and no more than one-fifth-of-a-percent organic content is allowed.
Another consideration is the cost of transporting a heavy but relatively low-value commodity stream. Tigchelaar says bottle cullet is typically transported by truck, so processing facilities tend to be located within 300 miles of consumers. Insulation cullet, meanwhile, tends to go by rail, but that brings its own set of challenges: “You have to be prepared to have a railroad loading facility,” Tigchelaar explains.
Finally, the volume requirement is another factor to consider. Tigchelaar says the millions of dollars in processing equipment wasn’t necessarily a big number considering that RMC was paying $100,000 per month in tipping fees. But recyclers with smaller volumes might instead opt to grind the glass for lower-end applications.
The strategy of partnering with a glass processing company is another common option, and many MRFs have good reasons for doing so. A case in point is Balcones Resources, based in Austin, Texas. Its Austin MRF receives some 6,000 tons per month of residential material, of which about 20 percent is glass. The material comes from the city of Austin plus 18 other communities in central Texas, says Kerry Getter, CEO of the company.
According to Getter, data from other municipalities around the country indicate that the city of Austin collects almost twice the national average of glass received by recycling facilities, or about 28 percent.
In addition to its Austin MRF, Balcones Resources operates two MRFs in Dallas and Little Rock, Arkansas, but those plants are processing mostly commercial streams containing very little glass, Getter says.
Balcones’ Austin plant breaks and sorts glass, sending it through a precleaning operation before moving it to a bunker outside in preparation for shipment to Strategic Materials’ Midlothian, Texas, facility, about two hours away.
The contract with Strategic makes sense for Balcones, Getter says, because Strategic purchases the material and covers its transport. “They’ve been a great partner for us,” he says. The company is about halfway through a five-year contract with the glass processing company.
Balcones ships out about three tractor trailer loads per day of glass, however Getter says this volume doesn’t warrant a more involved glass sorting operation.
“What we’re looking for is consistent movement of the material, regardless of market condition, and Strategic Materials has given us that,” he says.
Ultimately, Getter adds, after Strategic acquires the material and processes it, the sorted glass is sold to Owens Corning for fiberglass and to Owens-Illinois for bottles. Both companies have manufacturing plants in Texas within an hour’s drive of Strategic Materials, Getter says.
Getter concedes that while there has been interest expressed by other cullet producers to move into the Texas market, no other processors have entered the market thus far.
Recyclers tend to agree that while glass recycling certainly brings its set of challenges, lessons learned over the years prove they can be overcome.
The author is a managing editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.