Is Glass Recycling Still Worthwhile?

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Glass is infinitely and completely recyclable, right?

For years, that’s what we’ve been told. And the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI) stands by that claim.

But now glass recycling is increasingly falling into the same category as plastic foam recycling. In other words, glass is not always being accepted.

Since 2015, there’s been a growing movement by individual haulers and whole communities to limit or refuse glass as a recyclable. Last year, the city of Harrisburg, Penn., decided to stop accepting glass altogether; it doesn’t even offer glass recycling drop-off sites. Instead, the city is focusing on what it considers to be more valuable recyclables, like aluminum or plastics.

Dollars and Sense

Not surprisingly, the primary motivator for the glass recycling ban is economic. Simply put, recycling plants receive far less money from selling their crushed glass (known as cullet) than what they can get for aluminum or plastic.

In addition, with single-stream recycling, broken glass gets mixed in with other recyclables and disrupts the sorting process.  It can also wreak havoc on equipment and pose a danger for workers.  (See related article, “Single Stream Recycling: The Cost of Convenience.”)

Some haulers believe that the fuel and labor costs of transporting glass to those processing centers that still accept it is too high. Glass is heavy, and separating out the different types and colors is not cost-effective for them.

These haulers also claim that some processors have threatened to send entire trucks of paper, cardboard and plastic to the landfill because there’s also glass in the mix.

To them, it’s simply not worth the risk.

Landfill Bound?

In their defense, some processors contend that, unlike many recyclables, glass is non-toxic.  It’s made of sand, limestone and ash, so there’s no problem sending it to a landfill. Crushed glass presents no danger to the environment or atmosphere.

Many glass bottle manufacturers that use recycled glass to make new bottles can only use certain types of glass. Types of glass not accepted include drinking glasses, ceramic plates, pottery, windowpane glass, mirrors, and light bulbs. All of these end up in the landfill.

The Case for Recycling

Food-grade glass can be recycled again and again. In fact, new glass bottles are almost always made using at least a portion of recycled glass, according to the GPI. Recycling glass not only saves on the raw materials needed to make virgin glass, but it also reduces energy usage and extends the life of equipment, such as furnaces.

Want to know how much glass recycling offsets your carbon footprint? The GPI has a handy online calculator you can access. It will show, for instance, that if you recycled just five glass containers per week, you’d be saving enough energy to power a compact fluorescent bulb for 35 hours!

Did You Know…

  • An estimated 80% of all glass containers recovered for recycling are used in the manufacture of new glass containers.
  • It takes 30 percent less energy and creates 50 percent less pollution to use recycled glass to make new glass than it does to make new glass from scratch.

  • Glass that does not meet manufacturer’s specifications for recycling into new glass containers can still be used for “secondary” purposes. These uses include tile, filtration, sand blasting, concrete pavements and parking lots.
  • Owens-Illinois, one of the world’s largest glass producers. creates about 40 billion containers per year. (you can see how here).  About 40 percent of their product is made from recycled glass; the company’s current goal is 60 percent.

Want to see how glass bottles are made?  The following Owens-Illinois promotional video demonstrates the fascinating process:



Glass Packaging Institute

NBC News Atlanta

Penn Live

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