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Those recycled bottles? Odds are, they will have no second act

A bin full of mixed glass bottles at the TOMRA recycling facility in Essex Junction. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Every day, Vermonters dutifully return glass bottles to redemption centers or put them into blue recycling bins with the idea they may be turned into brand new bottles.

But in reality, only a fraction of recycled bottles will have a second act, appearing on a store shelf containing beer or soda.

There is little market for the glass, experts say, and local solid waste districts are stuck with trying to get rid of a product that citizens are required to recycle so it’s not buried in a landfill.

“No one wants to buy it to turn it into something else, in the simplest economic terms,” said Joseph Fusco, vice president of Casella Waste Management.

“Glass as a commodity has a very low, zero, or negative value to it,” Fusco said. That means that waste districts and transfer stations often have to pay to have it taken away.

“This is an extremely challenging material to handle,” Fusco said.

Glass is many times heavier than paper or cardboard, and so is more expensive to transport. Generally, the less distance glass has to travel, the better, both for economic and environmental reasons, which is why some waste districts see local construction projects as a good place for the glass to go, once it has been ground into tiny particles called processed glass aggregate, or PGA.

Soda and beer companies have fought hard against measures to make them responsible for the containers they’re producing. Now, they’re responsible only for bottles that fall under Vermont’s bottle law, under which people who return those containers can redeem them and get their deposit back, anywhere from 5 to 15 cents per container. 

The bottle bill passed because it offered a solution to roadside litter. But now there’s a recycling component to glass containers, and that’s why many in the recycling business argue the law should be expanded to include wine bottles and other uncarbonated beverages.

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While there are few options for recycling glass, the state points to business and technological innovations that may allow more uses for the material in the future — such as pozzotive, a glass-based additive for cement and concrete. But for now, waste districts and transfer stations say getting rid of glass is a challenge.

Meanwhile, there is a shortage of silica, the natural resource used to make glass.

Glass has to be clean

Casella operates one of two materials recovery facilities in the state, in Rutland. The other is in Williston, run by the Chittenden Solid Waste District, the largest waste district in the state. These are the only facilities that can receive unsorted, so-called “single-stream” recyclables.

According to Fusco, the 12,000 tons of glass Casella recycles per year in Vermont ends up in North Carolina, where a company called Strategic Materials processes and cleans it so it can be recycled into bottles.

The glass from Vermont’s materials recovery facilities “is used to make new glass bottles and fiberglass insulation,” wrote Laura Hennemann in an email to VTDigger. Hennemann is vice president of marketing and communications for Strategic Materials. She estimated that 60% of the glass was recycled into containers, while the other 40% became fiberglass insulation.

“The more contamination (non-glass materials) we receive, the more expensive it is to process,” Hennemann wrote. She explained that glass from a materials recovery facility — in industry shorthand, a MRF — requires specialized equipment and processing when it reaches Strategic Materials.

The assertion that Casella’s glass is being recycled into bottles was a surprise to officials at the Chittenden Solid Waste Community. 

“We are very active in the regional MRF community and this is the first we’ve heard of the Rutland MRF being able to process glass to a condition that ensures it will go to new bottles,” wrote Michele Morris, director of outreach and communications for the Chittenden district. 

Of the uses for recycled glass, glass that is turned back into bottles is held to the highest standard of cleanliness. “It has to stay super clean to be used as a bottle,” said Cathy Jamieson, director of the state’s solid waste program. She said glass that has been sorted into colors as it’s being recycled can sometimes be used for this purpose. 

Companies like Strategic Materials that process recycled glass use “the very cleanest streams of source-separated glass,” according to Morris.

Cullet is the name for glass that can be used to make new bottles. Other streams they receive — for instance, from MRFs — are more “commonly marketed for other uses, since it requires so much processing and cleanup to produce the required cullet,” Morris said.

Easier, but expensive

Single-stream recycling started to become popular about 15 years ago because it’s less work for the consumer. It’s a lot easier to dump glass, cans and paper into a single container.

The idea of single stream is that, if recycling is easy, more people will do it. One problem is that it’s expensive, and glass recycled that way needs more processing to be used again.

Hannah Tyler, Hartford’s director of public works, estimates the town pays Casella 50% more for single-stream curbside pickup service than for sorted glass that people bring to the town’s transfer station.

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“You can look at it and say it’s making it easy for people to recycle, but there’s just a huge cost associated with it,” Tyler said.

Paul Tomasi, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Solid Waste District, agrees with Tyler’s assessment. “Everybody likes single-stream until they see how much it costs,” he said. 

Tomasi, who has been working at the waste district since 1999, said cleaner materials make it easier for his district to find a market than for the single-stream facilities in the state. 

Unlike glass, there’s a market for recycled cardboard. Tomasi said the price of recycled cardboard, used in making toilet paper, more than doubled during the pandemic. 

“For about a month, cardboard went from about $60 a ton to $140 a ton,” he said, but prices are now back to normal.

Mixed-together glass has less value

The NEK Solid Waste District sends glass to 2m Ressources in Quebec, which turns the material into fiberglass. The source-separated glass that Hartford collects also makes its way to 2m Ressources, through the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a recycling nonprofit.

But even recycling facilities that separate glass by type must pay to have the material taken away.

When different colors of glass are mixed together and contaminated with other recyclables or beer, they lose value and are more expensive to clean and process.

“Some glass does have value if you separate it by color,” Tomasi said. When he started working at the district, it separated glass into clear, amber and green. “It wasn’t long after that that more colors started to be introduced. What do you do with the 1 percent of bottles that are blue?”

The Northeast Kingdom Waste District no longer sorts glass by color because of the concern that people will find it to be too much trouble, and stop recycling altogether.

And part of this complexity, Tomasi points out, comes from the companies producing the materials to begin with. “It’s all marketing,” said Tomasi. But this creates problems for the people that are on the receiving end of those products after they’ve been used.

“We have little to no input on what gets produced but yet we have to scramble to try to figure out what to do with these things once industry decides ‘we’re going to have 40 different types of plastic and you guys figure it out on the other end,’” Tomasi said.

Single-stream recycling, which sends glass to the Casella and Chittenden materials recovery facilities, is more common in Vermont. According to state of Vermont data from 2019, 10,240 tons of glass were collected by single-stream recycling. In comparison, only 894 tons were source-separated by transfer stations. 

Glass bottles that fall under the bottle law, which are returned to the store or redemption center for a deposit refund, made up 14,300 tons, according to an estimate from a consultant to the solid waste program. 

According to experts in the state, bottle law glass is more likely to be turned into new bottles because it stays cleaner than single-stream recyclables. And, unlike single-stream recyclables, manufacturers or their contractors are responsible for bringing deposit-eligible glass to the market again, in an Extended Producer Responsibility model.

In Vermont, a third-party contractor called Tomra handles most of the bottle law glass, according to Jamieson. Beverage distributors hire Tomra to bring the bottle law glass to market, where it can be turned into new bottles, fiberglass, or even become fillers in materials such as paint. While Tomra isn’t required to report to the state, Jamiseon said when they last checked, the company recycled glass through Strategic Materials.

“Expanding the bottle bill means more containers being remade infinitely, and not downcycled to only one more use,” according to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group’s website.

Bob Cappadona disagrees. He’s vice president of resource solutions for Casella and says the bottle law is a “drag on recycling” because it is inefficient and unnecessarily duplicates curbside pickup of recyclables.

While the Casella plant sends glass to North Carolina, the Chittenden plant uses it to make processed glass aggregate, which can be used in construction, as a substitute for other aggregates. Since 2018, Frank W. Whitcomb Construction Corp. has been taking PGA from the Chittenden district.

“They were looking for a home for it and we really didn’t have a market for it and we still don’t, but we still take it and try to recycle it as we can,” said Tyler Whitcomb at the construction and paving company. “They actually pay us to take it. They were having a hard time getting rid of it.”

The attorney general’s office is currently reviewing an enforcement case from 2018, when the Chittenden Solid Waste District received a notice of alleged violation for “disposing of glass on their Williston property outside of a certified facility” and for “failing to accurately report the destination of the waste to the state.” 

In a recent interview, Attorney General TJ Donovan said he expects to reach a settlement with the Chittenden district soon. The waste district maintains it has acted in accordance with state guidelines for the use of processed glass aggregate.

‘A lot of pushback’

Morris, of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, says that finding outlets for glass is a problem that goes far beyond Vermont. 

“That’s been a challenge for decades all over the country,” she said. “We’ve been working toward finding ways to have more local, higher-value outlets for this material that would enable us to move and productively use the 6,500 tons of material a year.”

Now, the waste district’s goal is for processed glass aggregate to meet what are called “sand borrow” specs, the highest spec for PGA. They have approached the Vermont Agency of Transportation to find uses for PGA within the state.

For now, Whitcomb explained that the company mixes in a small percentage — only 1% or 2% — of glass aggregate into a hopper, along with blasted rock from a quarry, and mixes them together. This works well as an aggregate under roads, where no one can see it.  And according to Whitcomb, “That’s where it should be.”

Because as it turns out, customers hate it.

“We get a lot of pushback from our customers,” Whitcomb said. “They do not want it in there.” He pointed out that the quarry aggregate won’t last forever, and that the company tries to use as much processed glass aggregate as it can, but “it’s a visual thing that people are really against. It baffles me, it really does.”

Whitcomb said Vermonters are “very recycle-conscious but when it comes to what they want as their finished product at their house, they want the best of the best. They want it done, but not at my house.”

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