Despite the negative sentiment over recycling glass, during the annual Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference, held in Chicago Oct. 19-21, two representatives from the recycling sector – one a private recycling company, the other a nonprofit recycling company -- expressed a more optimistic outlook.
Cal Tigchelaar, president of privately owned Resource Management Cos. (RMC), Chicago, and Kate Davenport, chief of business development for Eureka Recycling, a Minnesota-based nonprofit recycling company, highlighted the successes and opportunities they have seen by embracing glass as a recyclable commodity.
While both speakers said there are challenges in handling the material, they added that recycling companies need to make a full commitment to make glass recycling successful.
Tigchelaar’s company operates three material recovery facilities (MRFs), including two in the Chicago area. The company has been involved in handling glass for 25 years and has been beneficiating glass for about 10 years.
While acknowledging the problems the company has had in the past with glass, including a fairly high cost to handle the material, his decision to fully commit to glass recycling has turned a cost center into a profit center.
First off, unlike many commodities, typically glass has a negative value. “We have to charge for the material,” Tigchelaar said. "Also, there is insufficient processing capacity of the type we now do ourselves," he continued.
Tigchelaar said that as of mid-October color sorted bottle cullet was selling at $60 to $80 per ton, while finely ground glass sells at $75 to $120 per ton.
Glass itself makes up a significant portion of the recycling stream. In his remarks, Tigchelaar noted that mixed broken glass and the trash that accompanies it as an output of a residential single-stream sorting system comprises about 15 to 20 percent of the total stream by weight – not an insignificant amount. And, as the paper portion of the recycling stream declines, the glass fraction will increase.
RMC began by establishing its own collection program. “A line item that was a cost for us is now gone,” Tigchelaar noted. However, to accomplish this the company had to ensure that the glass its was processing was meeting all the criteria needed by end consumers.
RMC has been able to make glass recycling work, but Tigchelaar cautions that there are sizable challenges to making glass recycling as effective as possible. To make it work, companies need high volume of the material. Because glass is abrasive, it is fairly costly to maintain the glass recycling equipment, and consumers have demanding specs, including an intolerance for ceramics, metal and organics.
Adding to the challenges, Tigchelaar noted that while the initial capital cost is relatively modest, the ongoing cost to maintain wear surfaces is high. “Any surface that will come in contact with glass and glass dust needs to be hard face welded in order to stand up,” he pointed out.
Also, there is a significant yield loss in vacuuming and dust control operations, and companies need to deal with higher residue rate in the form of dust and other vacuumed material.
But, if a company is able to factor in these steps, there are sizable benefits, especially for consumers. He estimated that a consumer could save around 3 percent in energy costs for every 10 percent of cullet that is used instead of virgin material. And, despite the negative spin many recyclers put on glass, “Glass is infinitely recyclable, there is no degradation in the quality in remelting,” Tigchelaar pointed out. And, plenty of glass is available to a company looking for a steady supply.
In addressing the complaint that glass contaminates a single-stream system, Tigchelaar said that many people view glass as the red headed stepchild. However, both Tigchelaar and Davenport noted that other recyclables also contaminate the recycling stream. “Should it be removed?” Tigchelaar queried the audience. “If you do that, you better take the other materials out because they are all contaminants.”
He added, “What does it take to install a few simple screens? It is simple to get glass out.”
“Glass is one of the superstars of the program, Tigchelaar continued. "We used to spend $80,000 to get rid of glass. Now it is zero, and we have increased our revenue,” Tigchelaar noted.
Davenport also said her company has seen success in targeting glass for recovery. She said the company strives to achieve zero waste, reduce air and water pollution and provide a nontoxic packaging option for consumers.
Davenport also noted that Eureka has focused its attention on developing end markets for glass within the state of Minnesota. “Eighty-five percent of the material goes to markets in Minnesota,” she noted.
As for the benefits of glass, Davenport stressed that glass “is a good material. It is closed-loop material. It also is nontoxic."
One end market that Eureka avoids is alternate daily cover. “It is the lowest use,” Davenport said, a sentiment that Tigchelaar also expressed.
Ensuring the best end markets for the material, according to state law, means municipalities require transparency from processors as to the destination of recyclables. “When people are responding to RFPs (requests for proposal) they have to respond to where the material is going.”
Both RMC and Eureka Recycling stressed the importance of delivering quality glass to end markets. Strategic Materials Inc. (SMI), the recipient of Eureka's glass, checks all of the nonprofit’ material. “We can track our nonglass rate. We know how well that glass is working," Davenport said.
Because Eureka focuses on delivering what SMI requires, it can ship to the glass recycling company on a regular basis. “In our market they have a quality matrix that is nonglass residue," Davenport said. "We get a rate per ton based on that. Our rate is 5-7 percent. Because of this, we are always at the front of the line." She added, "The ability to move this material is very important."
Despite the opinion expressed by many that glass use is declining, Davenport said in the future she feels more markets will be opening up. “They may be a few years off, but they are coming to market.
“Glass is an investment that we feel is worthwhile from a financial, environment and community perspective,” Davenport added.
She said that it is more cost effective for cities or haulers to recycle glass than dispose of it. “The removal of glass from recycling would result in an increase cost to the city of around 30 percent. Further, dropping glass would result in a loss of a processing fee.”
In responding to the call by some haulers and recyclers to remove glass from single-stream collection programs, Davenport said that even if it was removed from the acceptable materials, it would still be there.