Whether it is the plastic container from take-out last night or the glass bottle we drink from, all products impact us and our environment to some degree. For the plastics we use, that impact is likely a complex web of factors contributing to its carbon footprint, for a glass bottle, however, it’s a little less complicated.
Glass containers are commonplace worldwide, but there’s much more to this seemingly insignificant material. For example, producing a glass product with cullet (recycled glass), requires up to 30% less energy7 than when manufacturing virgin glass products.
With so many choices of different materials, it’s difficult to assume which is the most sustainable, cost-effective, and safe for our health. Glass just might reign supreme over these other options, with the ability to be recycled indefinitely and harboring fewer negative environmental and health implications.
The Health Impact of Glass
Glass is an inert material, so it has no negative effects on human health. Drinking from glass bottles or eating from glass containers is perfectly safe.
Our Lasso Loop research team took a deep dive into glass and spent several weeks investigating the implications of glass on our health and environment. Ultimately, our analysis of this material proved rather futile, as glass simply does not cause risks to our health and well-being.
Plastics Degrade - What About Glass?
When virgin glass products are produced, the process requires more energy to heat and melt one of the main ingredients in glass making, silica sand. The chemistry of converting limestone and other virgin materials into liquid glass, along with the high heat required to melt the virgin materials creates significant carbon emissions. On the other hand, cullet has already gone through this chemical transformation and has a lower melting point, reducing the carbon footprint and making it a more sustainable option.
Recycling only one ton of glass can save 5 gallons of oil and 7.5 pounds of air pollutants1 from being released into our atmosphere. Other materials, such as plastic, are not only more difficult to recycle, but also are thrown away at a far greater rate.
In addition to their significant toss-out rate, plastics can only be recycled around 2 or 3 times2, under a certain set of conditions, before the quality decreases and it is no longer considered a viable alternative. Whereas glass can be recycled indefinitely and remain pure, with no decrease in value.
Furthermore, with the help of our local and national governments, container deposit legislation has the potential to create even more benefits for recycling - think bottle deposit schemes.
Our current systems have the potential to more effectively recycle glass as long as the correct equipment is used and properly maintained. However, this is rarely the case meaning substantial quantities of valuable glass materials end up in landfill rather than being recycled.
The Current Systems send Glass Recyclables to Landfills?!
The average American has no idea just how much our current, curbside recycling system is failing them. To illustrate, according to Recycle Across America, more than 28 billion glass bottles and jars end up in landfills every year3… that’s the equivalent of filling up two Empire States Buildings every three weeks! It’s hard to imagine wasting that much valuable material…
Instead of filling up Empire State Buildings, we are putting our glass in landfills. While the biodegradation of glass isn’t harmful to our environment, it does take a million years for glass to begin to break down or degrade! That means this valuable material is just sitting in landfills when it could be given a new life as a recycled container.
Not to mention all of the other recyclable materials that are sent to landfills every day, it’s clear that our recycling systems are not nearly as effective as they could be. As recyclers, our efforts cannot offset the failures of the current system, no matter what we do. We are capable of creating significantly more new products from recycled materials, yet we are continuing to pump out products created with virgin materials regardless.
Unfortunately, approximately 50% of American households don’t even have access to a curbside recycling bin4. That means half of Americans aren’t able to recycle, even if they wanted to.
In other countries such as Germany, Singapore, and Wales5, the recycling rate is higher; due to both the use of a multi-stream system, as well as greater access to recycling distributed evenly throughout the country. This improvement comes from the focus on recycling being decentralized, with an emphasis on separating materials before they reach the bins themselves. However, even this type of system is prone to human error and is not a solution for all of our current problems with recycling.
Recycling is long overdue for change... but there is hope on the horizon!
Let’s Fix the Problems with Glass Recycling
So why exactly is our current recycling system so bad? Well, the majority of American curbside recycling follows what is called a single-stream system, where all materials are tossed into one bin and sent off to a materials recovery facility (MRF)6.
MRFs are then required to sort materials by type and color, then send those collected materials to designated processing plants. This may seem like an efficient, streamlined process, however, in part due to the inability to correctly sort, MRFs are responsible for a significant amount of our lost recyclable materials. In addition to this unfortunate oversight, the majority of our recyclables are lost by never entering the recycling system at all.
Essentially, MRFs act as a bottleneck to the process and prevent a lot of our materials from being recycled. This is because they are unable to remove contaminants and successfully sort all of the materials that run through the plant. They end up throwing perfectly good materials into landfills because they are not capable of actually recovering them.
In addition to this, the majority of glass being processed is too low in quality to be financially viable given the distance between the MRF itself and the downstream processing plant. This inhibits glass recycling, leading to more glass ending up in landfills.
An improved recycling system is a multi-stream approach, where each material is sorted into separate bins at home, traveling directly to the processing plant from the start. To change our current system to one with more effective recycling rates, every American household would have to sort their materials by type and color, at home, using anywhere from three to five (to even more!) different bins rather than just one.
A multi-stream system may seem like a no-brainer, as it is more successful and more cost-effective, however it puts more responsibility on consumers and allows for human error, which is already a challenge with recycling. This style of system is not a cure-all for the problems with recycling.
We need an entirely new approach.
Emerging Technology to Save the Day!
With the new age of technology offering plenty of solutions to our most difficult challenges, there are now new options in addition to just single or multi-stream systems. Lasso Loop recycling is working to bring a domestic recycling appliance to homes across the country.
The Lasso appliance would implement a closed-loop system, meaning that all of your accepted materials, including your glass, are recycled into new products of equal or similar value. This is done by ensuring that materials are kept separate from the very beginning.
Instead of mixing all your recyclable materials in one bin, the Lasso scans, cleans, processes, and stores the resulting products (and different glass colors) in containers separate from each other, ensuring that the end product is as pure as possible. These processed products are then collected at your convenience and shipped to a re-manufacturer to be manufactured back into new items.
The Lasso eliminates the guesswork in recycling, guaranteeing that materials are successfully broken down and stored with like end-products. There is no threat of contamination with the Lasso because materials are never mixed together, all while producing environmentally friendly products with a real cash value, in the comfort of your own home.
The future of recycling is here, are you ready for the revolution?
Interested in learning more about glass? Check out our other blogs!