Q&A with Glass Packaging Institute’s DeFife: Is There a Circular Future for Glass?

“Even with many plants in the region, MRFs should have proper equipment to separate and clean up the glass, but many do not,” says Glass Packaging Institute President Scott Defife. He recently spoke with Waste360 about the challenges unique to each region.

The Glass Packaging Institute has set a national goal to reach glass recycling rates above 50%. GPI President Scott DeFife talked to Waste360 about challenges unique to each region, how the industry is working to address them and what yet has to happen. He also had words about the debate on whether single stream and glass recycling can work together.

Waste360: What glass recycling challenges are unique to each region and how are you addressing them?

DeFife: We studied the national landscape in our report, A Circular Future for Glass, released in the Spring of 2021 with the goal of getting the national glass recycling rate up above 50 percent, by using a basket of potential solutions that fit the challenges in each region.  

For instance, the Northeast has five states with high-volume streams of clean bottle bill material, plus Canadian glass that largely meets that same high-quality level, and that material serves several glass plants. Thus, the secondary processing in the region is largely geared towards those cleaner streams, which presents a challenge for MRF glass. Communities with single-stream systems that are not properly equipped to reduce contamination have a tougher time with end markets.

The issue is not a lack of demand; it is getting regional secondary processing sited to clean up MRF glass, or getting more glass into cleaner streams (dual stream or otherwise separated) so it can be processed in the region.

In the Southeast, there are no bottle bill programs, and little in the way of enforced regulations compelling private companies from keeping the glass out of landfill. This is a key issue because companies that operate landfills receive payments via weight-based tip fees, and sometimes get “recycling” credit for recyclable glass used as alternate daily cover.

Even with many plants in the region, MRFs should have proper equipment to separate and clean up the glass, but many do not. We may work in the Southeast to expand glass-only curbside systems to feed nearby processing plants or to create investments in upgrading MRF equipment.

In the Plains and Mountain time zone region, distance to market and low landfill pricing dominate. We are working on hub and spoke aggregation and transportation solutions to get the glass to plants in Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado. The West Coast has high recovery rates and end-markets, but there are unique policy issues that must be resolved in California and Washington. 

In the Great Lakes, where there is the highest concentration of glass plants and processing capacity, it’s really a matter of educating policy makers to better understand that taxpayers are paying to move material in one line of the budget or another, recycling or landfill, and that they should demand better quality and recycling infrastructure to keep glass out of landfills, because there are plenty of outlets for quality glass.

The Glass Packaging Institute has set a national goal to reach glass recycling rates above 50%. GPI President Scott DeFife talked to Waste360 about challenges unique to each region, how the industry is working to address them and what yet has to happen. He also had words about the debate on whether single stream and glass recycling can work together.

Waste360: What glass recycling challenges are unique to each region and how are you addressing them?

DeFife: We studied the national landscape in our report, A Circular Future for Glass, released in the Spring of 2021 with the goal of getting the national glass recycling rate up above 50 percent, by using a basket of potential solutions that fit the challenges in each region.  

For instance, the Northeast has five states with high-volume streams of clean bottle bill material, plus Canadian glass that largely meets that same high-quality level, and that material serves several glass plants. Thus, the secondary processing in the region is largely geared towards those cleaner streams, which presents a challenge for MRF glass. Communities with single-stream systems that are not properly equipped to reduce contamination have a tougher time with end markets.

The issue is not a lack of demand; it is getting regional secondary processing sited to clean up MRF glass, or getting more glass into cleaner streams (dual stream or otherwise separated) so it can be processed in the region.

In the Southeast, there are no bottle bill programs, and little in the way of enforced regulations compelling private companies from keeping the glass out of landfill. This is a key issue because companies that operate landfills receive payments via weight-based tip fees, and sometimes get “recycling” credit for recyclable glass used as alternate daily cover.

Even with many plants in the region, MRFs should have proper equipment to separate and clean up the glass, but many do not. We may work in the Southeast to expand glass-only curbside systems to feed nearby processing plants or to create investments in upgrading MRF equipment.

In the Plains and Mountain time zone region, distance to market and low landfill pricing dominate. We are working on hub and spoke aggregation and transportation solutions to get the glass to plants in Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado. The West Coast has high recovery rates and end-markets, but there are unique policy issues that must be resolved in California and Washington. 

In the Great Lakes, where there is the highest concentration of glass plants and processing capacity, it’s really a matter of educating policy makers to better understand that taxpayers are paying to move material in one line of the budget or another, recycling or landfill, and that they should demand better quality and recycling infrastructure to keep glass out of landfills, because there are plenty of outlets for quality glass.

Waste360: What are common themes across regions? And what are some basics of glass recycling?

DeFife: The consistent theme is that quality matters and, for glass, local, landfill economics are the primary competition. 

For furnace applications like container (or fiberglass), material must meet contamination and color specifications, so MRF glass must go through secondary processing. At single stream MRFs without equipment or sorting upgrades, glass is often sorted “negatively” meaning the last of the recyclables collected to be separated, and as a result includes non-glass-residue (NGR). The NGR at many of these facilities can be as high as 50%.

It is important for policy and other decision makers to understand that poorly sorted MRF glass is not representative of recycled glass value to core manufacturing end markets, nor is it a fair comparison for glass vis-à-vis other recyclable commodities.

Waste360: Who are some of the entities with programs that are working, and tell us about those programs.

DeFife: Ripple has a great glass model. It may have started as a replacement for a lack of good glass recycling in the Kansas City area, but they have not stopped at five or 10 drop-off containers in a metro area. 

Ripple uses a variety of collection options for a separate stream of glass, which can layer into residential and commercial services on top of very convenient drop-off.  The stream is cleaner, so processing costs are lower, and the material carries higher value for established end-markets.  

This can be replicated in other cities, or in subsets of dedicated commercial bar and restaurant collection programs. Some are Momentum (Colorado and Utah) GlassKing (Arizona), Haulin’ Glass (Atlanta), Prism (Pennsylvania), and Repeat Glass (Ohio). They have all shown consistent or promising results due to their proximity to processing and because these glass programs augment glass collection and recycling when traditional haulers have not wanted to recycle glass even in areas with glass processing.

Waste360: Tell us about the single-stream debate as it applies to glass.

DeFife: In the time that I have been leading GPI, I have been in countless meetings, tradeshows, and policy stakeholder calls where representatives of waste management companies have complained about glass in their system, or repeated myths about glass being to blame for the problems; that it is not good for single stream. 

I would argue the opposite. Glass has been used as a packaging material far longer than the broad adoption of single-stream recycling.

We know that single stream can work for glass, as there are several companies and MRF operators who operate at less than 10% NGR, and several of those MRFs have also gone through a process for the Glass Recycling Coalition MRF Glass Certification program  Unfortunately, right now, there are too many facilities where the NGR reaches 35-50 percent, dragging down value and limiting the yield that can go to remanufacture.

There are companies that operate great MRFs. Glass collected in bottle deposit programs, separate streams, and even community drop-offs have positive market value, and recovery yield is high.

Waste360: What are key issues in single stream that must be addressed?

DeFife: First and foremost, if the recycling operation and the landfill are owned or operated by contract through the same company, there can be a conflict of interest, absent a regulatory or contract requirement to recycle the glass collected. This arrangement creates a disincentive for the company to clean up the material. 

Without a quality standard for output, the greater the contamination and the lower the price for the commodity deemed “glass.” This places highly contaminated glass (referred to in the industry as “three-mix”) at risk of being dropped from recycling programs when a municipality needs to save money from the recycling budget.  They send glass to the landfill, where the economics of disposal outweigh the public benefit provided from recycling.

Use of glass as alternate daily cover (ADC) should be more restricted and should not be counted as either recycling or diversion by local or state governments.

Waste360: What’s most important to know about regulations’ effects on management of waste glass? Can you tie in EPR and bottle deposit states’ rules?

DeFife: Regulatory pressure for better quality waste management and recycling is affecting many materials, largely through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) debates in states and potential expansion of bottle deposit programs.

For glass, the high volume of clean material from bottle deposit states supplies a majority of the cullet used for making new glass containers. In those states for PET, aluminum, glass (and other materials) the recycling rates and material quality is much higher. Redemption program management could be more efficient and convenient in many states, supported by some portion of the state’s unredeemed deposits.

We cannot get to the national goals in those states alone, and there are steps that can be taken outside of bottle deposit programs to keep recyclables out of landfill, grow job creation, and assist in economic development in areas where recyclables should be treated as a supplemental raw material input for economic development and manufacturing industries. 

The model where the community pays for collection and the private sector then parses out the commodity on the secondary market has fundamental gaps that many suggest can be dealt with through EPR.   

If the ultimate goal is diversion and reduction in raw material, a viable alternative in an EPR system may look to additional separate streams at convenient collection points to capture higher volumes with greater yield and less contamination.

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