A Tour of a Glass Recycling Plant

A Tour of a Glass Recycling Plant
A Tour of a Glass Recycling Plant

If you ask us, there’s nothing much more fun than a tour of a recycling facility. Our team’s interest in tours was sparked two years ago when we visited WestRock’s Marietta materials recovery facility (MRF) where most of Gwinnett County’s recycling goes to be sorted and processed. Since then, we’ve toured the Centers for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) in Atlanta and Athens, an electronics recycling facility, a tire recycling plant in coastal Georgia, MRFs in Gainesville and Athens, carpet manufacturing plants in Dalton that use recycled materials, and Gwinnett’s only comprehensive drop-off recycling center, the Snellville Recycling Center.

Recently, I had the chance to check another recycling facility off the list when I joined representatives of Keep Chamblee Beautiful and City of Chamblee Public Works for a tour of the Atlanta recycling plant of Strategic Materials. Here at the largest glass recycler in North America, common myths about glass recycling, such as “recycled glass has no value” or “there are no markets for recycled glass” are met with facts. With nearly 50 glass recycling plants across North America, these guys know glass!

As advocates for glass recycling following its removal from Gwinnett County’s recycling program this summer, we know glass pretty well too. But a manager at Strategic helpfully answered all of our remaining questions.

Q: Why is glass recycling such a hot topic in Georgia, with glass being removed from many recycling programs?

A: Partly due to major players in the state’s waste management industry that want to prevent glass from getting mixed in with more valuable recyclables or have an interest in glass filling up landfills. This isn’t the case everywhere. In many other states, there are limits on the amount of glass that can enter landfills. For example, glass containers are considered a mandatory recyclable in California, Connecticut, DC, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, and are actually banned from landfills in Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

Q: Does glass have to be color-separated to be recycled?

A: No. Color-separated glass just commands a higher price. Strategic Materials buys color-separated glass, color-mixed glass, and even glass from single-stream MRFs that still contain a lot of trash residue. Glass recyclers have technology to sort and clean all of this glass to prepare it for markets.

Q: Does glass have to be unbroken to be recycled?

A: Definitely not. At the recycling plant, glass is run through several crushers (see photo, left) to break it to bits. Big pieces must be re-run through the machine.

Q: Do metal lids need to be removed from drink bottles and food jars before recycling?

A: Nope! Glass recyclers collect ferrous and non-ferrous metal from the recycling process and ensure that lids are recycled. Prior to recycling wine bottles, you can remove corks and take them to a place like CHaRM where they are collected and recycled.

Q: Can glass ever be effectively captured from single-stream recycling?

A: Yes. Strategic Materials’ Atlanta facility receives glass from several single-stream (mixed) recycling MRFs. This glass contains a lot of trash residue, but it can still be cleaned, sorted, and turned into new products. The material in the bucket pictured at right is glass received from a single-stream MRF.

Q: Why is it better to use recycled glass? Isn’t virgin glass easy to make from sand?

A: First, recycled glass melts at a much, much lower temperature than sand (think thousands of degrees lower!). This means greater energy efficiency and a far less fossil fuel-intensive manufacturing process. Second, to get sand to melt at temperatures that aren’t so hot that they won’t also melt the furnace, it must be combined with minerals and other natural resources that act as heat accelerants. Inevitably, these harm the Earth to extract.

Q: How can recycling mistakes harm glass recycling?

A: Clean recycled glass is made up of the right glass containers — drink bottles and food jars — and is free of contaminants. Bits of materials like ceramic plates or cups are terrible contaminants in the glass recycling stream, as they act like glass and can on rare occasion end up included in glass bottles or jars, where they cause visual defects and make the bottle or jar more breakable. Other small items that shouldn’t be sent to MRFs, like chicken bones or shredded paper, can also end up screened into the glass pile and cause problems.

Cleanliness of glass drives recycled glass pricing, and higher prices paid for recycled material incentivizes recycling. Help the system by keep your recycling clean!

Q: How’s the demand for recycled glass?

Approximately eight thousand tons of recycled glass currently leave Strategic Materials’ Atlanta facility every month, bound to manufacturers in Georgia and elsewhere in the southeast. This glass is then turned into new food-grade glass containers, fiberglass insulation, and road beads — all more useful applications than glass sitting in a landfill, taking eons to biodegrade. The demand is there for recycled glass, and recyclers like Strategic want more glass!

Thank you to Strategic Materials and the City of Chamblee for this informative experience!