Monday, April 27, 2015

How Does Glass Recycling Work?

By Dave Fidlin

Recent technological advances have made the process easier than ever!
Ever since the curbside recycling movement gained steam in the 1970s, glass has been one of the most commonly recycled items. But recent technological advancements have made the process of transforming that old jar of jam far less painstaking than the methods once used.

There is good reason to recycle glass. It’s one of the few compound materials out there that can be recycled, time and again, and not lose any of its original quality, purity and, most importantly, its strength. Glass’ durability over time is one of the reasons it has been such a popular material for food storage.

Members of the U.S. recycling industry estimate 13 million glass bottles and jars are sent through recycling centers on a daily basis. These glass containers once held such food and beverage products as juice, beer, liquor, wine and soda.

Here are a few other interesting facts about glass and recycling, courtesy of the Container Recycling Institute:

  • Recycled glass can be substituted for up to 95 percent of raw materials.
  • More than one ton of natural resources are saved for every ton of glass recycled.
  • For every ton of glass that is recycled, one ton of natural resources are saved.
  • There are 47 recycling plants specializing solely in glass in the U.S. They are spread across 22 states.
  • About eight full-time jobs are needed to recycle 1,000 tons of glass.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a few other fun facts on this topic:

  • Americans contributed about 11.6 million tons of glass toward the municipal solid waste stream in 2012.
  • As recycling as a whole has surged in recent decades, glass recycling has followed suit. Between 1980 and 2012, glass recycling increased from 750,000 tons to an astonishing 3 million tons.
  • While glass recycling has surged, the sad reality is there is still much more work to be done. In the U.S., only an estimated 28 percent of all glass on the market was recycled.
As is the case with most products, the benefits of recycling glass are numerous. For one, repurposing it saves energy. It also lowers emissions and reduces the amount of quarrying that takes place. Perhaps the most important aspect of recycling glass, however, is the reduction in what winds up in our ever-populated landfills.

From an economic perspective, glass recycling also has proven beneficial over time. As the U.S. EPA points out, “Glass container manufacturers need a steady supply of quality cullet (the term used to denote broken or waste glass) to make glass containers.”

The EPA further states, “Ninety percent of recycled glass is used to make new containers, and the demand for quality cullet is greater than the supply.”

In the early days of widespread recycling, discarded glass products were frequently repurposed for very different uses in their second lives. Some of it was used to cover landfills, while other particles went into some of the cheaper construction materials used on buildings.

In more recent times, however, many recycling centers across the globe have begun using old glass products for more useful purposes. Old bottles, for example, can be transformed into - you guessed it! - new bottles.

Glass jars, bottles and other similar products come in all shapes, sizes and colors, of course. Disparities aside, the beauty behind glass recycling is it doesn’t matter what form it comes in. Whether the glass is round, long, clear or green, it can be recycled.

As this post on Enlighten Me pointed out, glass bottles and jars are typically sorted into different color classes. This process was once handled manually by humans, but has since shifted to automation.

As the authors at Enlighten Me explained, color classification serves an important purpose: “(It) will indicate chemical incompatibility and will not properly melt if not separated. The glass products are also washed and cleaned to remove any impurities.”

NPR’s Planet Money blog laid out the modern transformative process in this eye-catching series of moving images.

NPR staffers toured a recycling center in Jersey City, N.J., and shared what took place - from an automated sorting process to removing such unwanted items as bottle caps to crushing the glass back down to a granular state. Eventually, the material is sold to bottle manufacturers.

The so-called decontamination process is one of the most important steps in recycling glass. The material is passed through a magnetic field in an attempt at removing any unwanted items that might still be attached to a glass item.

Another process, known as fine sizing, removes any potential ceramic contaminants that might still be attached to a glass item. Fine sizing includes the use of screens, which are used to separate the wanted and unwanted particles as the recycling process moves along. It’s important to remove ceramic contaminants because their presence can lead to structural defects.

As the recycled glass, in its granular state, winds up at a bottling plant, the material is mixed with limestone, sand and an intriguing substance known as soda ash. Together, the items are bonded through a melting process within furnaces that have temperatures soaring up to a whopping 2,700 degrees!

While modern sorting processes have made it possible for old glass jars and bottles to be reused from their original state, the material can also go toward a number of other purposes. Unfortunately, not all of those reuses lead to recyclable products. Some of the everyday items we use that contain some or all elements of recycled glass material include cookware, light bulbs, countertops, mirrors and flooring materials.

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