The problem is that glass is heavy (more shipping cost), not very valuable (new glass is cheap) and it breaks into small pieces that get everywhere in the waste stream. Breakage also compounds the biggest obstacle to value, glass needs to be sorted by color to have significant value to companies that use recycled glass.
But there is company in Houston, Strategic Materials, that recycles more glass than any company in the world. They started over 100 years ago recycling plate glass from manufactures. Back then it was easy; the glass all about the same color and thickness and it was a simple “pile and grind” operation.
But for the last decade, as single-stream recycling came on line, Strategic Materials had to reinvent the way to recycle glass. They buy it by the ton from municipalities and it arrives in this unrecognizable pile of glass shards and trash. The piles go through several sorting processes to remove the dirt, paper and plastic, which represents about 40 percent of the weight of what they bought.
When the pile is mostly just glass, they start taking it over to their super-secret sorting building. This is the heart of their enterprise and the reason they lead the world in recycling glass. A series of optical sorters and other techniques separates the glass out by color. Outside the plant are these beautiful piles of “cullet,” the name for crushed, recycled glass in the marketplace.
The main buyer of their cullet are bottling plants (one of the largest in the country is the Owens Corning plant in Waco) and fiberglass manufactures (Owens Corning has a massive plant in Waxahachie). They include a portion of recycled glass into their production to cut costs; recycled glass requires must less energy (heat) to use.
We visited the biggest single source customer of Strategic Materials, the fiberglass insulation plant in Waxahachie. They produce the famous pink insulation that is likely used in your very home. The recycled glass they buy is ground down to look like sand. Color is not an issue so they can buy this waste stream product cheaply. Since the plant is so close to a major city (DFW) they can buy a lot of it with incurring huge shipping costs (Strategic Materials and Owens Corning are only about 10 miles apart). This provides a tremendous competitive advantage for Owens Corning. The recycled glass allows them to run their very expensive ovens at lower temperatures, saving both electricity and wear.
Next time you are at your local hardware store, look at the rolls of Owens Corning house insulation. On the label, it shows that the fiberglass is made up of almost 50 percent recycled glass.
Only 12 percent of the glass thrown out in Texas ends up being recycled. Only 12 percent! In states where there are bottle bills (the consumer plunks down a nickel or a dime for every bottle and can get it in the empty) the recovery rate is 85 percent.
A bottle bill in Texas is not a political reality. That is a shame. If we could recover 85 percent of our waste glass, that would make us the largest producers in the country. Companies that use recycled glass would flock to the state. The plant manager in Waxahachie told me that the first thing they would do is add on to their plant. A bottle bill would be the least expensive job bill the legislature could ever pass.