Glass Recycling

Read Part 1 of this article here.

Take an empty beer bottle. We can either throw that glass bottle away or recycle it.

Assume for a moment that we all want what’s best for the planet. Assume, therefore, that we want to use as few resources as possible.

Should we recycle our beer bottle, then? Or should we throw it away?

And how do we know?

Do we believe the Al Gore’s of the world, who assert what we should do, for no other reason than that they assert it? Or do we look into the actual data ourselves?

Ask yourself this:

If recycling is more expensive than using new materials, can it really be more efficient?

The free market prices its resources by what’s called opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is not arbitrary.

It means that producers won’t choose packaging which costs more if that packaging is identical (or inferior) to other options.

For years now, many of you have spent thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hours sorting, washing, de-labeling, and resorting bottles so that these bottles could be recycled.

The horrible truth of the matter is that most of these hours have been a complete waste, the very thing you sought to avoid.

But more than that: the environment is worse off because of your efforts.

Most of the glass you’ve worked hard to have recycled is now resting in some landfill – via a very circuitous, and very costly, route.

That’s a fact.

Here are a few more:

Recycled glass is called cullet.

The process of producing cullet consists of grinding up glass, which in turn requires machines and much electricity.

Recycling glass is a thoroughly industrial process, make no mistake.

Cullet glass is full of additives, contaminants, and impurities, most of which are trapped within the cullet, so that they remain harmless. If, however, someone again melts the glass, which is precisely what happens when it is recycled, these contaminants are released into the earth, water, and air.

Different colored glasses cannot be merged for bottles.

Mixed cullet is, for the most part, useless.

Clear glass and green glass are usually landfilled.

Glass broken beyond a certain point is landfilled.

Amber glass is the only recyclable glass that’s remotely in demand.

Silica – also known as sand, which is what glass is made of – is exceptionally cheap and exceptionally abundant.

Silica production is not a danger to the environment, by any standard. Indeed, silica is made into glass without any extra steps or expense, unlike recycled glass, which is much more involved and much more environmentally unfriendly.

That is why virgin glass is cheaper than cullet glass. It also, incidentally, provides you with a critical clue into something you should know the next time you ponder whether to throw your bottles into the trash, or into the recycling bin.

If cullet glass is more expensive and also more toxic, and if cullet glass usually ends up in landfills anyway, why, then, do we bother recycling glass?

A good question, for which, unfortunately, there is no good answer.

Here, however, are some of the bad ones:

“Recycling is always cheaper, no matter how much it costs in terms of those Federal Reserve notes you call money,” say a number of my critics.

And:

“Silica mining rapes Mother Earth.”

You can certainly believe this nonsense if you like, and I, for one, will certainly never convince you otherwise, no matter the evidence.

But you should be aware of how much more waste you’re creating, and how much more you are polluting the environment.

You can also believe, as many never tire of telling me, that “recycling has a spiritual component,” which in turn gives recycled products “special value that price cannot measure.”

But I’m speaking to those of you who have not yet been blinded by the environmental dogma:

If price is a reliable indicator – and it is – then the majority of recycling is incontrovertibly irrational.

It is worth noting that many American cities, though explicitly “green,” have nevertheless come to see what for many of us has been blindingly obvious for years: glass recycling is an utter waste. It’s a waste of time, and it’s a waste of resources and money. Furthermore, it’s bad for the environment.

That is why many American cities have wisely done away with glass recycling – green glass in particular, which is so plentiful that it’s ridiculous to recycle it, and the cullet market for which is so overwhelmed by an excess supply that recycling it costs big time, in every way, because so much of it is ultimately landfilled.

There are, of course, a number of other cities that “have tried to delete green glass from the list of recyclable materials, but face a political veto from recycling enthusiasts. And, interestingly, the political opposition comes precisely from those people who will end up paying more for the inefficiency of the recycling they insist they want. Taxpayers, citizens, the folks who take their garbage out to the street, want to ask the city to put green glass back on the recyclable list, regardless of the cost” (Michael Munger, “Think Globally, Act Irrationally: Recycling”).

The Coors Recycling Plant is where all recyclable glass in the entire Colorado region goes. An employee there, who requested anonymity, told me this:

“A great deal of what has been sorted for recycling does end up being landfilled, despite what you hear, because of contamination or lack of market for the recycled material.”

How much?

“Don’t ask.”

One estimate: less than half.

Another estimate: less than a third.

Another: less than a quarter.

Conservatively, this means that if 80,000 tons are hauled for recycling, about 40,000 tons ends up in a landfill.

To put that into perspective:

Rather than throw your bottles into the trash and then pay one of our fine local haulers to take that trash to the dump, as we used to do in the good old days before the religion of environmentalism swept across the country like a plague, we are now paying our local government, in the form of subsidies, so that we can now spend thousands upon thousands of hours cleaning, de-labeling, sorting, and resorting glass, so that we can then pay for more trucks to pump more pollution into the air and use more fossil fuels in the process, so that finally our bottles can be hauled a couple of hundred miles (roundtrip), so that they can then, at last, be landfilled.

That is the beauty of green politics and all their profligate governmental bureaucracies.

That is our earth-friendly greens at their finest.

It is also sheer madness.

Ask yourself another question:

How has such a fraud been perpetrated?

Answer: the neo-Marxist philosophy of environmentalism and your tacit sanction of that philosophy.

Recycling “feels good,” for instance.

It has a “spiritual component.”

Recycling “simply must be better for the environment.”

Humans are a blight upon the earth.

Reader, you’re being lied to.

You’ve been brainwashed into believing that throwing away your Heinenken bottles will destroy the planet.

If you only hear a single thing that I’m saying, let it be this: if something is viable, it will never need to be subsidized.

If subsidies are called for, that thing is wrong.

Recycling must by necessity be subsidized because it is inherently wasteful. When recycling is not wasteful, it’s done voluntarily, as it’s been done since the dawn of humankind.

If you doubt this, read Rubbish, by one of our foremost rubbish experts, Doctor William Rathje.

And remember this also:

“There is a simple test for determining whether something is a resource (something valuable) or just garbage (something you want to dispose of at the lowest possible cost, including costs to the environment). If someone will pay you for the item, it’s a resource. Or, if you can use the item to make something else people want, and do it at lower price or higher quality than you could without that item, then the item is also a resource. But if you have to pay someone to take the item away, or if other things made with that item cost more or have lower quality, then the item is garbage” (Michael Munger, “Think Globally, Act Irrationally: Recycling”).

Read Part One of this article here.

23 Comments

  • nulambeh jim pertiangma

    May 25, 2010

    thats very intelligent of you.i must confess you are great.

  • jt

    June 18, 2010

    I found this article while researching cullet prices for a glass recycling plant I’m designing. Just thought you might be interested in hearing from someone with an actual technical background and no political agenda. A lot of the “facts” you base your argument on are wrong. I’m not going to go into great detail, but if you are really interested in being right about something, I hope that you will. I’ll get you started:

    “If cullet glass is more expensive and also more toxic, and if cullet glass usually ends up in landfills anyway, why, then, do we bother recycling glass?”

    1) It’s not more expensive. It takes a lot less energy to melt cullet, and less energy to produce it. Sand is not pure silica in almost all cases – and it’s cheaper to produce cullet than it is to mine new high purity sand. Using cullet does save money – the problems lie mostly in transportation – but that’s not a physical or economical limitation – it’s a social and political one.

    2) It’s not more toxic. You’re talking about trace organics (food) burning in a furnace. High quality cullet is cleaned during production anyway.

    3) It is true that a lot of cullet ends up in landfills. This is because the economics for most plant designs aren’t good. That doesn’t change the fact that the material and energy costs are lower for recycling cullet. You can’t look at the current market and say “see, it’s hopeless.” The market reflects the state of technology, it doesn’t define it. Your view is typical of an economics-focused person, particularly one enamored with right vs. left politics. Simple thermodynamic arguments show that recycling makes sense. If the market doesn’t support that, it’s because technology or transportation networks are limiting. The answer isn’t to stop trying. The answer is to figure out what’s broken and fix it.

    You have an absolutist view and you are letting that cloud your ability to honestly analyze facts. I hope that you will take the time to check your assumptions, instead of taking the word of one or two authors with a political agenda. In the meantime, I’ll be designing a profitable glass recovery plant.

  • Ray

    June 18, 2010

    jt wrote: > Simple thermodynamic arguments show that recycling makes sense.

    As I’ve repeatedly stated, recycling does make sense — sometimes. When it does, the market naturally adopts it, as it always has, without the government coercion you’re so enamored of. Nor did I ever say it was “hopeless,” and so where, exactly, your quotation marks come from, I’m not sure. In fact, I don’t believe it’s hopeless. On the contrary, free the human mind, and the possibilities are limitless.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • Miller

    June 18, 2010

    jt:

    I thought it might interest YOU to know from someone who actually works in glass recycling that sorting, melting, and remanufacturing cullet glass IS very often more expensive and it’s only certain kinds and colors of glass that are in demand. As this author points out, nothing is ever really recycled until it’s remanufactured and RESOLD.

  • bob sykes

    September 26, 2010

    As someone who taught solid waste management/recycling for 30 years to engineers, I agree and disagree with jt. Cullet is very valuable at the glass making plant, and it is usually added to new batches of silica, etc, precisely because it melts at a much lower temperature than the raw components and it dissolves them. Cullet is also cleaned before use and is nontoxic.

    However, the collection, transportation and sorting processes are an unavoidable part of any recycling program, and they constitute the major part of the total costs. Recycling essentially tries to reverse entropy.

    The sorting costs are the main problem. All (as is all) recycled materials must undergo a final hand (as in hand) sorting even if the original source (eg, a household) did a preliminary sort. The original sort always has major errors and includes incompatible items (eg, ceramics in glass). The hand sort is especially necessary in glass where color separation is mandatory. But, sorting glass is dangerous to the workers (cuts, slashes, etc) and requires various safety precautions. As a consequence, many commercial recyclers either will not accept glass or will charge a special fee.

    As always, the best single indicator of environmental impact is total cost. The more expensive activity has the greatest negative impact. By this criterion, most recycling projects have net damage to the environment.

    As a corollary, if it makes economic sense to recycle something, it is already being done. The best example is steel. About 70% of all steel production in the US begins as recycled steel.

  • david foster

    September 26, 2010

    Sounds like recycling is less energy-intensive and more labor-intensive than making glass from silica. Hence, the economic attractiveness of recycling at any point in time should be a function of the ratio of energy costs to labor costs, and investors in glass recycling need to make long-term forecasts about the trend of this ratio. Hard to discuss meaningfully without specific *numbers*.

  • Ray

    September 26, 2010

    bob sykes wrote: > if it makes economic sense to recycle something, it is already being done. The best example is steel. About 70% of all steel production in the US begins as recycled steel.

    Yes, sir. That’s the whole point. As articulated here: Recycled Trash

  • Jack

    September 26, 2010

    Ray, you are correct. Excellent article that expresses the facts of recycling. I have been in the “recycling industry” for over 30 years and the public’s perception is truly naive. However it’s not there fault. It’s all due to an incompetent media. I hope jt doesn’t loose to much money on his new venture, but he will loose. I was once in favor of nuclear power till I found out that it too requires a government subsidy. No venture capital will touch unprofitable nuclear power.

  • Ray

    September 27, 2010

    Hello Jack. Nice to meet you, and thanks for the comment. I’m afraid, though, that your last two sentences are not entirely accurate:

    http://www.hyperionpowergeneration.com/

    http://reason.org/news/show/1003241.html

    Thanks for dropping by.

  • Sam

    September 27, 2010

    My wife and I recycle wine bottles by taking the empty bottles from the wine we buy, washing, delabeling and refilling them with our homemade wine. Let me assure you that it is less expensive that way.

  • Andrea

    September 28, 2010

    While the information presented here is pretty depressing and points to a genuine problem (assuming all the data is sound), I am disappointed by a couple of things.
    1) there aren’t any stats about recycling other products – a few stats indicating success or failure rates in recycling plastics, paper, or household metals (soup cans…) would be nice to see in order to get the big picture.
    2) The author seems condescending toward people for their emotional attachment to recycling, but never addresses the big underlying question: WHY is it that recycling is such an emotional/”spiritual” issue so that people aren’t open to hearing that it isn’t working?

    Assuming the stats I found are accurate:
    – As a nation, Americans generate more waste than any other nation in the world with 4.5 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) per person per day [that’s a lot of waste], 55 percent of which is contributed as residential garbage.
    Additionally:
    – The US consumes 25% of the world’s energy with … a share of the world population at 4.5%.

    So…we use tons of stuff (literally), filling up landfills along the way…

    Whether something is financially profitable doesn’t make it wise…cigarettes are big business even though we all know smoking is bad for your health. Likewise, there’s a lot of money/profit in feeding current US consumption habits, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for our country…the ever increasing amount of waste we have accumulated (and the pollution we generate just to get *rid* of our stuff once we have decided we’re done with it) certainly seems like cause for concern. It certainly seems like *something* ought to be done. So back to the WHY question…WHY are people stuck on recycling even if it’s not working?

    I would bet that at least part of our attachment to recycling is that we know we have a problem, but we don’t want to give up our consumption habits in order to fix it…so we try like crazy to find some other solution instead of just buying less stuff. Our culture revolves heavily around satisfying personal wants (not just needs) and on maximizing convenience…there wouldn’t be such a market for bottled water, fast food, and video games (to name just a few) otherwise.

    It’s depressing to hear that at least one area of recycling seems to be counterproductive…maybe if there were enough people willing to live more simply and not indulge their every want quite so much (my cell phone is sooo “last year”), then perhaps counterproductive areas of recycling wouldn’t be “needed” (meaning the current emotional attachment to it) the way they are now.

  • Andrea

    September 28, 2010

    My apologies for (1) of my previous note…I didn’t notice until just now that this pas part 2 of 2 articles.

    And even with (2) of my previous email, the part 1 article certainly makes it sound as if the luxurious consumption rate by the US is not at all a problem since we have plenty of space to store all the trash…

  • Ray

    September 29, 2010

    Hello Andrea. Nice to meet you. There’s no need to apologize. I appreciate your comments and your readership, and I thank you for dropping by.

    I’ll quit condescending people for their “emotional attachment to recycling” when they quit condescending me and others like me who don’t worship at the green shrine. I’m referring, of course, to the sanctimonious preachers and practitioners of environmentalism — for example, the baristas and coffee-shop workers who over the course of the last five years have verbally reprimanded me for ordering my coffee in a to-go cup (because it stays hotter much longer, and because I like to take some of it with me, at the end), though I’m mostly drinking it in the coffee shop. That pisses me off. And that never used to happen, until recently.

    So, yes: when these self-righteous and woefully uneducated and scientifically illiterate lemmings quit condescending me, that’s when I’ll quit condescending them.

  • E.A. Blair

    September 29, 2010

    Nice Comments Ray – I will Rebut Andrea’s points myself later on.

    Here are some stats on the City of Toronto’s Glass Recycling Program.

    Material Tonnes Revenue

    Broken Glass 16,868 $-

    that’s right – we recieve absolutely NO money for the glass we “recycle“.
    We have to give it away for free.
    Here is the answer I recieved from the Bureaucracy when I asked for the stats on glass.

    Hello Mr. Blair,
    Sorry if the information wasn’t clear in a previous email in which I’d said that we budget for a contracted cost of $12 a tonne for glass and that is a cost that the City pays for it to be recycled. The City does not make any revenue on recycling glass.

    “Email reply on Mon., June 21, 2010 – Candidate request

    As well, there is no dollar figure attached to glass – does that mean we give it away free? or does it end up in a landfill?”

    Toronto’s contracted cost to process glass for recycling is $12/tonne. The glass collected by the City for recycling does not go to landfill.”

  • E.A. Blair

    September 29, 2010

    By the way – how do I do spreadsheets on your blog?

    And one More thing regarding the cost of our MSW Program.

    Recycling – $335/Tonne
    Green Bin/Compost – $135/Tonne
    Landfill – $65/Tonne

    Of course a fair bit of our “compostends up in the Landfill , so I wonder if we have to pay twice – $135 and $65 Per tonne.

    What a joke.

  • Ray

    September 29, 2010

    Hi Redmond. I don’t know how to do spreadsheets of my blog. On the other hand, I know a number of people who can show you how to do a spreadeagle.

  • Greg

    September 30, 2010

    Andrea,

    One cross country flight across the U.S. should convince anyone that we have ample land for landfills. Acreage is certainly not a problem in this country.

    Regarding your comparison of energy consumption to population, it is a misleading or disingenuous. The proper comparison should be energy consumption versus production. If you check the GDP of the United States it makes up about 25% of the world GDP from the 2009 IMF and World Bank stats (U.S. = 14.2T, World = 59T).

    It makes more sense to point out that the U.S. consumes 25% of the world energy and produces 25% of the world’s goods and services.

    I hope you enjoy your time on Ray’s site. Cheers.

  • Dan

    August 4, 2011

    If the major costs for glass recycling, such as color sorting, defect removal (ceramic, stone, metal, plastic), and transportation are minimized, does that change your argument?
    My company just did a sort this week for a one of the world’s largest glass bottle producers. We took mixed dirty (straight from the landfill’s stockpile), label on, broken glass (ranged from 4″ to 3/8″) and removed 99.5% of the ceramics, plastic and metal and simultaneously sorted flint (clear) from gramber (green, brown, and amber)at a rate of about 16 tons per hour. We did a rerun, at the same tonnage, and separated green and brown. The only pre-processing was screening and crushing of anything over 4”.
    Yes, our machines are a bit expensive (but they have a 20+ useful life) and they do consume electricity, but other than loading and unloading, there is almost no labor. It’s important to note that we eliminated the need for magnetic sorting, plastic sorting, and cleaning the % of the fraction that is unusable. Those are significant users of electricity and water in traditional cullet recycling processes.
    You’re correct that mixed landfill glass has almost no commercial value, but if it can be sorted onsite (at the landfill) with almost no labor and you only transport clean sorted cullet, the economic value is there. In other words, the technology barrier to cost-effective mixed glass sorting has been removed.

  • Ray

    August 7, 2011

    Hello Dan. Thank you for your comment. In answer to your opening question, no, it does not change my argument. On the contrary, it supports it.

    My argument is this: get the government completely out of the recycling racket and let the free-market reign. If and when recycling is tenable, the market will adopt it naturally.

    As the market always has.

    As the market always will.

    Thank you for dropping by.

  • KJJ

    September 21, 2011

    Where we live there is no glass recycling at all, you have to go to the other state to do it. I want to start a glass recycling company in the way of reusing the glass .. reselling it.. and seeing if Artist’s would want to buy it. I think it is absolutely ridiculous how much glass is out there in our landfills. I’m not an educated person when it comes to recycling glass but I do know that if the glass isn’t broken, it can be cleaned and reused. It gives people jobs and helps out the locals.. steering clear of the corporations making all the money without giving crap back.

    I was surprised after reading what you wrote about and makes me sad to think that the glass will be here for millions of years because no matter what, its cheaper to toss than recycle.

    >”One cross country flight across the U.S. should convince anyone that we have ample land for landfills” Doesn’t mean we need to use all of the empty space for trash.

  • Greg

    September 21, 2011

    KJJ wrote, “Doesn’t mean we need to use all of the empty space for trash”.

    A landfill 35 miles wide by 35 miles long and 200ft deep would cover only 0.03% of the 3.79M square miles of available land in the U.S. (source Penn & Teller B.S. episode Recycling)

    Not exactly using up all of the empty space is it?

  • TBF

    October 20, 2011

    Ray, I have been seriously looking into starting a glass recycling business in my town for sheer reasons of net profit. What I am finding is that the reason there is not a glass recycling program here is that the profit part is missing. It is unfortunate money can’t be made without a subsidy, but even that I’m finding is getting slim. Unless anyone has a better way to make glass recycling pay I’m heading in a new direction.

  • mabruk

    February 26, 2012

    i have 750 ton glass cullet. i want export prize

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