Note also that the City of New Orleans does not take glass for recycling in their curbside pickup program. They don’t take it for drop-off either, and there are precious few places around here that do. Nationally, while we are recycling more of other materials, recycling of glass has declined slightly.
If you’re like me, you may be curious. What’s the deal? Why is it so hard to keep a glass recycling program going? I poked around a bit and asked a few questions. Here’s what I’ve learned.
The pros and cons of glass
Glass is one of the most amazingly awesome materials made by humans. It’s cheap and easy to manufacture, and the environmental impact is low. It has many uses, from windshields to smartphones to containers for food and drink. Glass bottles and jars are great because they don’t interact with their contents in any way.
One of the best things about glass containers is how they can be reused (more on that in a moment) and recycled. When it comes to recycling, glass bottles can essentially be melted down and made into more bottles endlessly. It sure beats plastic containers, which can’t be properly recycled at all (only “downcycled” to make other stuff like playground equipment or shopping bags) or paper, which can only be recycled a few times before it’s degraded.
Melting old glass down to make new glass sounds efficient, doesn’t it? Indeed, it’s something like a third cheaper (more energy efficient) than making glass from scratch. However, that’s not as dramatic as recycling metals like aluminum. In fact, glass is at the bottom of the list when it comes to efficiencies achieved by recycling.
There are are other downsides, too. We all know what happens when glass breaks. You could cut yourself! But there are other problems you may not have considered. Glass is rough on the equipment which is used to handle recycled materials. It can damage other materials that are collected together with it in a “single stream” recycling operation. And it’s heavy, which becomes a factor if it has to be transported over long distances.
Aye, distance: there’s the rub. The further the distance those materials have to be transported, the less economic sense it makes. Visualize tons of glass being hauled across the countryside in big gasoline-powered trucks and you begin to get the picture.
(For years, the Target at Clearview Mall has collected glass. Yet Mid-City recyclers should be aware that it’s not worth a special trip to Jefferson Parish just to dump your glass. The energy consumed by your automobile may well erase the energy saved by recycling.)
It seems there are no local industries who can use recycled glass. Near as I can tell, the nearest place is over 40 miles away, somewhere in Mississippi, and they couldn’t begin to handle the volume of glass if our whole city started recycling.
Energy efficiency is incredibly important. When we save energy we conserve natural resources, reduce pollution and keep the environment a little bit healthier for all living creatures.
However, there is another reason we recycle besides energy efficiency, and that’s to keep stuff out of our landfills.
How does glass stack up? As you might imagine, there are worse things to send to the landfill. Being inert and generally nonreactive, glass just sits there like a rock. I’m not saying we should send all our glass there. But as a community, we need to have a sense of priority.
For example, we are also sending huge volumes of organic refuse to our landfills, everything from kitchen scraps to yard waste. This is highly problematic because it generates methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide, and this contributes to global warming. Some municipalities have gone so far as to ban organics from their landfills.
In terms of priorities, the City of New Orleans would probably do better to pursue a municipal composting program, rather than glass recycling.
Reusing those bottles
Every elementary school kid today knows the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Those words are repeated in that order to give a sense of priority. Note that recycling comes last.
Better to reuse. There are ten states in the union that collect a deposit on bottles to encourage their return. A beer bottle can be washed and reused up to 15 times before it gets worn out and needs to be recycled.
We’re not doing this in Louisiana, but we should. The benefits include reducing litter, conserving energy and creating jobs.
Unfortunately, the chances of a “bottle bill” passing our legislature seem somewhat akin to our chances of snow any given winter. It could happen, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
To be clear, recycling is still a good idea, but let’s not make a fetish out of it. Recycling is like voting. It is a civic duty, but it’s not the greatest duty. More like the least. Yes, we should recycle. Yes, we should vote. But that’s only a start. There’s a lot more work that’s needed.
Those interested in these topics may want to attend LifeCity’s Green Drinks event with the Zero Waste Network on Tuesday, 20 September, 5:30-7:30PM at the NOLA Tap Room. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it because I’ll be at the Green Party of New Orleans monthly meeting which is taking place on the same date, 6PM, at Monkey Monkey. Choose your poison! Also, thanks to Liz Davey, Director of Tulane University’s Office of Sustainability, who set me straight on some facts.
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.