Weak glass market means some bottles marked for recycling land in dump

So you think you’re helping to save landfill space by putting that beer bottle in the big blue recycling bin?Think again.

For the past year, glass collected by the city of McAllen from curbside bins has been sent straight to the landfill instead of being recycled, said Elvira Alonzo, manager of recycling for the city.Low glass prices and the Rio Grande Valley’s geographic isolation make it difficult for anyone to recycle glass from the area, glass experts said.Other Valley cities do not accept glass at their recycling centers because the cost to sort and transport it to the nearest recyclers in Houston, San Antonio or Monterrey, Mexico, are not worth the paltry selling price — as low as $5 a ton for mixed-color glass, glass experts said.Glass that McAllen residents drop off at the city recycling center on Bentsen Road has at least a chance of being recycled.It’s stored in dumpsters while the city looks for buyers. But when 10 of the storage dumpsters are full, that glass is sent to the landfill, too, Alonzo said.

Finding buyers for the stored glass is rare, she said. Representatives from glass companies often stop by or agree to talk, but in the end decide they can’t afford to ship the glass from McAllen.

“Last year, we were trying to deal with a company in Houston as well as Vitrio (from Monterrey),” she said. “I mean, I never give up.”

Glass accounts for less than 1 percent of all the recycled materials placed in curbside bins, Alonzo said.

But since the city last had a regular buyer for glass, officials have made no attempt to tell McAllen residents that the glass is going to the landfill instead of being recycled, she said.

Residents who knew the glass was ending up in the landfill could have opted to buy products packaged in recyclable material, such as plastic or aluminum.

Alonzo said she did not want to confuse residents with an on-and-off policy about collecting glass that would change according to the market.

This way, she can sell occasional loads of glass, which is better than none, she said.

Alonzo hopes the recycling center’s policy does not hurt its successes in recycling paper, cardboard, plastic and other materials.

“I don’t want the fact that we’re not (recycling all) glass to discourage people from bringing other materials,” she said.

Alonzo’s struggle to find buyers is common, said Tex Corley, CEO of Strategic Materials in Houston. Corley’s Houston-based company controls 40 to 50 percent of the North American glass recycling market, but he does not do business in the Valley.

By the time Valley cities pay to have their relatively small loads of glass shipped to him, their earnings wouldn’t be worth the effort, he said.

“There’s virtually no (glass) recycling going on in the state of Texas, and one of the reasons is the distances between where you are in the Valley and the closest market where you would actually be able to sell,” he said.

Corley’s company buys glass once used as beer bottles, car windows and in buildings for prices ranging from $5 to more than $30 a ton, depending on the color. Then he sells the glass to companies that turn it into new beverage bottles or fiberglass, he said.

But Valley cities said they can’t afford to send their glass to Houston for a meager $20 or $30 a ton when other recyclables are more profitable.

A Monterrey paper mill buys newspapers for $65 a ton and cardboard for $90 a ton, and it picks up the material in the Valley, recyclers here said.

Plastics can fetch about $120 a ton. Brownsville stopped collecting glass about 1998 because it wasn’t worth the cost, and Harlingen followed suit a couple of years later, said Curt Nading, recycling coordinator for the Harlingen Recycling Center and former employee at the Brownsville recycling center.

Bottle bills

Texas laws may be partly to blame for the glut of glass that’s sent to landfills, said Jenny Gitlitz, director of research for the Container Recycling Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit group.

People who live in states with so-called “bottle bills” — which allow beverage companies to charge consumers an additional few cents for each drink and refund it when consumers return the bottle to retailers — are more likely to recycle than those who live in states, like Texas, that don’t have the law, she said.

Bottle bills take recycling responsibilities away from the taxpayers who pay for municipal recycling centers and put them on the shoulders of retailers who have to collect the used bottles, Gitlitz said.

In a country where most beverages are not consumed at home and only 50 percent of people have curbside recycling, bottle bills also make it easier to recycle, Gitlitz said.

“People are not going to take their emptys back home to put back in the curbside,” she said. “They just don’t.”

Corley was the first major glass recycler in the United States to come out in favor of a bottle bill, Gitlitz said.

In Corley’s California business, where a bottle bill is in place, glass is easier to recycle because it’s usually unbroken and sorted by color, unlike glass from curbsides. The bottle-makers that buy from him like it because they expend less energy making fresh glass, he said.

But retailers don’t like it because they have to pay to collect and store the sticky bottles, and bottlers can still get glass made from scratch, or plastic, at cheap prices.

“It’s not going to happen in Texas, I can tell you,” Corley said. “Not only are the grocers against it, but the bottlers (as well).”

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