Is Recycling Glass Worth It? (& Which Glass Doesn’t Get Recycled)

Glass bottles and jars are 100% recyclable. And they can be recycled endlessly without losing their quality. 

When you recycle glass, you help conserve non-renewable resources, reduce CO2 emissions, and save energy

Is recycling glass worth it? Yes, absolutely, but with a catch…

For glass recycling to make sense, it has to be free from contamination. We need to be careful about how we recycle glass or else it ends up in a landfill and our effort was in vain. 

The US only recycled around 31% of its glass containers in 2018 while Switzerland recycled 94% that same year. All because of the contamination issue in the US. 

In this post you’ll find which kinds of glass are recyclable, how to recycle glass properly, why the US comes up short, the pros, cons, profitability, and more. 

Are All Types of Glass Recyclable?

No. Surprisingly, only two types of glass can be placed in curbside recycling and public recycling bins: glass bottles and jars

Curbside Recycling and Public Bins:

You can recycle glass containers for food and beverages, regardless of their color.

  1. Bottles (beer, wine, food condiments, liquor, soft drinks, vinegar, olive oil, etc) ✔ 
  2. Jars (salsa, pickles, jam, applesauce, cherries, olives, honey, sauces, etc) ✔

NOT Applicable for Curbside Recycling and Public Bins:

Any glass that isn’t a food or beverage container is not eligible for curbside pickup and cannot be placed in a bin at a public recycling station. 

  • Vases ✖ 
  • Eyeglasses ✖ 
  • Windows ✖ 
  • Mirrors ✖ 
  • Dishes ✖ 
  • Drinking glasses ✖ 
  • Light bulbs ✖ 
  • Ovenware ✖ 
  • Crystal ✖ 
  • Pyrex ✖ 
  • Ceramics ✖ 
  • Fish tanks ✖ 

If these types of glass are mixed with bottles and jars they can interrupt production, damage machinery, and also cause defective, weak containers.   

Why Can’t You Use Curbside Recycling for Any Kind of Glass? 

Different types of glass, like windows, are treated and reinforced chemically to be much stronger than glass containers.

Pyrex and other cookware are treated to be heat resistant. Ceramics are also treated to be heat resistant but they often contain a mix of materials, like clay. 

Mirrors are covered with a reflective coating. 

Because of their chemical treatments, coatings, and mixed-material ingredients – Other types of glass can’t be recycled using the same process as bottles and jars.  

If all the glass being recycled in the same bunch were treated glass, you could recycle it. But treated glass is recycled so infrequently that most facilities are not equipped for it. 

If your glass waste is in too poor condition to be repurposed or donated – it’s possible to recycle treated glass if you’re willing to go the extra mile. 

You can contact the solid waste agency in your state to ask if they can refer a private company that recycles treated glass.

Is Recycling Glass More Difficult Than Other Materials?

Preparing glass bottles and jars for the recycling bin couldn’t be simpler. 

There are fewer universal steps and rules to follow compared to paper-based materials, like cardboard

You merely need to remove the lid and rinse the container so that it no longer contains food or beverage residue. 

And easy as that, your glass bottle or jar is ready for the recycling bin.

The lid should be thrown away unless it is a metal lid, in which case it will go with your metal recycling.  

Now that your glass container is ready for the recycling bin… well, this is where recycling in the U.S. gets a little tricky.

Every municipality and recycling center has its system with its specific requirements. 

If you want to get the most out of your efforts, you have to take five minutes to learn the ins and outs of your local recycling protocol. 

Give them a call or visit their website to answer the following questions: 

  1. Do I have to keep glass separate from other recycled materials? (You probably will. Mixing everything leads to broken glass, cross-contamination, and waste).
  2. Do I have to separate glass by color? (Glass retains its color after recycling. Many recycling centers will separate it for you. But some ask you to do it to cut their costs and save time). 
  3. Can I recycle broken glass? (Some centers will take broken glass as long as it’s in an all-glass container)
  4. Do I have to remove the label? (Not likely, the recycling process uses heat to burn away labels and glue. But some places still ask you to remove the label, so double-check just in case)
  5. Do you pick up the glass curbside and is there a pick-up cost?
  6. If you do not pick up the glass curbside, where are the glass drop centers?  

Is Glass 100% Recyclable?

Even though multiple types of glass products are headed for the landfill, glass jars and bottles are 100% recyclable.

When the recycled glass is sent to be processed, it’s crushed into what is called ‘cullet’ to facilitate melting.

Cullet is then mixed with sand, limestone, and sodium carbonate (soda ash) to make more glass.

How Often Can Glass Be Recycled?

Like aluminum and metals – glass has an infinite lifespan. 

It can be recycled, crushed, melted, and re-used to make more glass in an endless cycle. 

Does Recycled Glass Have a Lower Quality?

The amazing thing about glass is that we can use it over and over again without affecting the quality.

The 30th time you recycle glass, it’s just as strong as it was the 2nd time. 

Unless, of course, non-recyclable types of glass have been mixed in with the recyclables. In cross-contamination situations like these, the strength of the glass is compromised. 

It’s also possible to weaken or muddle the color of the glass if it has not been properly separated. 

What Are the Benefits of Recycling Glass?

1. Conserve Non-Renewable Resources 

The main ingredients used to make glass are sodium carbonate (soda ash), limestone, and sand. 

These raw materials are natural and abundant. But, they’re non-renewable resources

It isn’t sustainable to overuse them. And mining these materials is resource-intensive. 

Cullet, the granular material made from recycled glass, is essential in reducing the use of raw materials. 

When making glass bottles and jars, cullet can substitute as much as 95% of raw materials. 

For every ton of glass that’s recycled, over a ton of natural resources are saved.

2. Save Energy 

When cullet is included in the glassmaking mixture, you can create glass with the furnaces set to slightly lower temperatures. Therefore, less energy is needed to heat the furnaces. 

For every 10% of cullet used in manufacturing, the energy needed to heat the furnaces drops by 2-3%. This also helps manufacturers cut their energy costs.

3. Reduce CO2 Emissions 

When the carbonates from limestone are heated during production, they release CO2. 

Using more cullet during manufacturing means that less limestone is used and less CO2 emissions are released.

“Basically, for every 6 metric tons of cullet used in manufacturing, glassmakers can cut 1 metric ton of CO2 emissions.”

C&EN (Chemical & Engineering News)

4. Shrink Landfills 

In 2018, 7.6 million tons of glass ended up in landfills in the U.S. That’s roughly two-thirds of all glass produced in the U.S.

Glass is a non-biodegradable substance. It can be broken down by the wind, water, and harsh weather.

But in landfill conditions, glass can take hundreds to thousands of years to break down.  

When we recycle glass, we are doing our part in shrinking landfills and reducing the trash sprawl that pollutes communities and ecosystems. 

What Are the Disadvantages of Recycling Glass?

1. The System in the U.S. Isn’t Designed for Glass Recycling 

In the U.S., glass recycling has been scrambling to get organized after China stopped importing the majority of the world’s recycling in January 2018. 

One of the systems that persists from when the US was selling to China is the single-stream recycling system.

Single-stream recycling is when a household places all of their recycling (glass, plastic, aluminum, paper, and cardboard) in one single bin.

Cities permit a single-stream system because the collection costs are lower. 

The problem with this system is that many well-meaning but misinformed people also place non-recyclable items (garbage) in the bin and contaminate everything inside.

These contaminated materials are often thrown out as garbage. 

Because single-stream recycling bins are often contaminated, only 40% of the glass in a single-stream system is recycled.

The solution would be to adopt a multi-stream system and require households to separate their recyclable materials, placing the glass in glass-only bins.

This level of change would require increased taxes to cover higher collection costs and more community education. But it seems to be the solution (as evidenced by the fact that it’s working very successfully in most European countries).

2. A Lack of Cullet Processors and Lack of Buyers 

Even though recycling is good for the environment, at the end of the day it’s a business for most. And from a business standpoint, it has to generate a profit to make sense. 

There’s often this lose-lose situation in the U.S. in which people aren’t recycling glass because there’s no local cullet processor to sell to. But there’s no local cullet processor because no one is recycling glass. 

There is also a resistance to travel great distances to reach a buyer because cullet is heavy and expensive to transport.

Traveling long distances drives up the price of cullet, making it less interesting to buyers. 

Only 63 glass processing plants are operating in 30 states. And they compete to sell their glass to only 44 glass manufacturing plants in just 21 states. 

Is It Profitable to Recycle Glass?

There certainly is a demand for recycled glass because cullet is used to make bottles, jars, construction materials, and fiberglass.

“The container and fiberglass industries collectively purchase 3.35 million tons of recycled glass annually.”

But recycling glass is only profitable under the right conditions. 

So, what are the right conditions

  • The cullet matches the color specifications of the buyer 
  • The cullet matches the quality requirements, free from contamination
  • You’re located near a buyer

How Much Is Recycled Glass Worth?

This varies widely depending on your local economy, the recycling center, and also the factors listed above. 

The value of recycled glass has dropped greatly after China’s recycling ban.

For example, the statewide average value of scrap glass in the state of California dropped from $35-$50 per ton in 2017 to $4.70 per ton in 2020.   

As an individual looking to make a buck, you can use Earth911.com’s ‘Where to Recycle’ tool to find recycling centers near you. 

You can contact the recycling centers from your search results to ask which materials they accept and which ones they will pay you for. 

According to Geoff Williams of US News, 10 states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont) pay 2 to 15 cents per bottle.  

How Does Glass Recycling Affect the Environment?

Recycling glass has a positive impact on the environment. 

By recycling glass, we’re keeping bottles and jars out of landfills.

Glass’ ingredients (soda ash, limestone, and sand) are non-renewable resources. When we recycle, we can slow down the rate at which we use these resources. 

Recycling glass also equates to less limestone mining. 

Limestone mining can have multiple negative effects on the environment such as deforestation, water pollution, erosion, landslide risks, and reduction of biodiversity. 

When glass is made from 100% raw materials, like limestone, it releases more CO2 during the production process.

By replacing limestone with cullet during the manufacturing process, we can reduce the carbon emissions that are released.

What Are Alternatives to Recycling Glass?

Glass that doesn’t get recycled is usually bound for a landfill.

However, there are a few creative ways that we can extend the life cycle of our glass without recycling. 

  1. Crafts – Upcycle broken glass and turn it into wind chimes, jewelry, and mosaics. 
  2. Storage – Use glass jars as a way to store household items.  
  3. DIY Home and Garden Projects – Glass jars can be used to make lamps. And glass bottles can be turned into bird feeders, flower pots, glass gravel, or glass mulch. 
  4. Donation – Give your glass bottles to small, local brewers and homebrewers. 

How Do You Dispose of Broken Glass at Home?

Some recycling centers will accept broken glass. 

If you keep your glass recycling separate from your other recycling materials, there is a chance that you can place broken jars and bottles in the glass recycling bin.

Make sure you confirm this with your local municipality or recycling center before trying it. 

But what do you do when your recycling center won’t take the broken glass?

Or what do you do when you have broken, non-recyclable glass?

How do you dispose of it safely? 

First, wrap it in something safe like a newspaper or cloth

If possible, use a hammer to gently break it into smaller pieces. Put these pieces, and the material that they are wrapped in, in a box. 

Close the box and make sure it is safely sealed with strong tape like duct tape. 

Write clearly, in large letters, “contains broken glass” on the box. 

This method for disposing of broken class might not be the most eco-friendly, but it is the safest method for the people that work in garbage collection.

Conclusion 

Glass is 100% recyclable, endlessly, and doesn’t lose its quality. 

Ideally, we could create a closed-loop system in which we are recycling the majority of our glass to avoid making so much of it from raw materials. 

Recycling glass not only conserves non-renewable resources but also saves energy, reduces CO2 emissions, and keeps more trash out of landfills. 

Unfortunately, the US is still a long way from a sustainable closed-loop system. There aren’t enough processors and buyers. And the falling price of glass could mean that the number isn’t going to increase any time soon.  

In the meantime, we can do our part by recycling our glass well. If the glass we place in our bins isn’t contaminated, it’s much more likely to get recycled instead of ending up in a landfill.

  • Make sure your glass containers have been rinsed and that the lid has been removed. 
  • Keep your recycling bin clean and free from non-recyclable materials. 
  • Bottles and jars are the only glass that will go in your recycling bin. 
  • If your municipality allows it, use a multi-stream recycling system. 
  • Check the website or contact your municipality or recycling center to ask about sorting, color, broken glass, removing labels, and curbside pickup.

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