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Recycling Glass

September 14, 2014

I was always skeptical of the claims about recycling glass.  I knew there was no market for it.  The city of Winnipeg told us that their recycling contractor, Emterra, was using waste glass as a base for roads built within the landfill area.  If that’s recycling, it’s surely at the edge of what constitutes recycling.  Now I find out, from a CBC investigation of two city recycling programs, the the contractors are not even doing that.  According to this article, most of the glass goes directly into the landfill.  Some of that is stockpiled, but even that is not recycled.  I don’t know what Emterra does here.

Curiously enough, the Province of Manitoba just announded new funding for recycling programs.  They were concerned about the low diversion rates from landfills in the province.  They wanted to encourage more composing of organic waste.  They were also concerned about the amount of institutional and industrial waste that winds up in the landfill, particularly from renovation and demolition companies.  Cardboard, shingles, and drywall could all be recycled, they concluded.  There was no mention of glass.

In general, the economics of recycling are not good.  There are only a few waste products that are profitable to recycle.  Aluminum cans are the prime success story.  Companies that manufacture thin aluminum sheet will take all of the waste cans that they can get.  That’s because it’s quite expensive to refine aluminum ore into any form of the metal.  Aluminum in metallic form is a much cheaper raw material.  The other success story is PET bottles, which can be manufactured into fabrics quite cheaply.  Waste bottles are a cheaper raw material than the usual petroleum chemicals.

Most recycling is done at a loss, and has to be subsidized.  Paper used to be recycled, but it’s not any more.  Demand for paper is dropping as people continue to convert to electronic communications.  Paper plants are closing.  The ones that are left have to minimize their costs.  They utilize pulp wood as their raw material, rather than employing the more expensive process of de-inking waste paper.  Glass is probably the worst example.  The raw material for manufacture of glass containers is white silica sand.  This is inexpensive and easy to obtain.  Used glass could be used instead, but it would have to be sorted to remove brown glass and green glass.  Coloured glass would have to go someplace else, to a market that doesn’t exist.  All this processing is expensive.  New silica sand is cheaper.

I’m sure I’m not typical.  I never put aluminum cans or PET bottles in my blue cart because I never buy products in those containers.  I don’t subscribe to a newspaper, but I still have paper and cardboard that I recycle.  I try not to purchase products that come is glass containers, but sometimes I have no choice.  Occasionally, I do put glass in my blue cart.  I also recycle steel cans and plastic containers.  I assume the cans are made into new steel.  I suspect that the plastics are mostly made into low-grade products like curbs and fenceposts, rather than into new containers.  As I said, recycling is an expensive process.  The city of Winnipeg does have a good composting program, as far as I can tell.  They get all of my leaves and grass clippings.  I hope that they, at least, are properly recycled.


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