There’s A Demand For Recycled Glass, So Why Is Houston Ending Pickup Service?

Houston’s new contract with Waste Management omits glass from curbside recycling because it costs the company too much. At the same time, glass recycling companies say there continues to be a high demand. The problem is, it’s a long way from the recycling bin to a new bottle.

By Florian MartinMay 4, 2016 9:30 am| ,

From Houston Public Media

Mike Lunow, recycling director for Waste Management’s Texas and Oklahoma operations, gives me a tour of one of the company’s materials recovery facilities, or MRF. Waste Management is the company that picks up residential trash for the city of Houston.

“After (glass) goes through the whole processing system, it goes through our glass clean-up system,” Lunow says as he’s showing me how recyclables are separated into different materials, like paper, aluminum, plastic and glass.

Pretty soon, a lot less glass will be processed here.

In March, the city of Houston entered into a new contract with Waste Management for recycling pickup service.

But glass is no longer part of it.

Why? The company says it isn’t making money from recycling anymore, due to low commodity prices.

In part thanks to low oil prices, which, for example, make producing new plastic cheaper than recycling it, the price of most recyclables has gone down.

But glass is an easy target because it takes a lot to process.

“It goes from being a whole bottle to being shards of glass,” Lunow says. “That glass, when it becomes that small, is extremely hard and very costly to recover.”

And, Lunow said, glass is very hard on the machinery and leads to frequent replacements of equipment.

Once Waste Management is done separating glass from the rest of the materials, a truck from a glass recycling company picks it up.

“If glass comes to us and it’s glass and not glass mixed with a lot of garbage, it still has a positive value and we pay for it,” says Curt Bucey, executive vice president at Strategic Materials, the company Waste Management gives its glass to.

The problem is, that glass is still about 50 percent contaminated, and the recycler has to separate out the glass from the remaining materials.

“That takes time, effort and equipment to do that,” he says. “So we charge that back and that takes glass from a positive to a negative.”

Strategic Materials sells the clean glass to manufacturers that turn it into bottles and jars or fiberglass.

Keefe Harrison, executive director of the Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit that helps communities improve their recycling programs (full disclosure: Waste Management is a sponsor), says Houston is not the only city that is dropping glass from its curbside recycling.

Other cities, like Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Greenville, North Carolina, have done the same.

But she says it’s a regional problem. In the central part of the country, there are more manufacturers that need recycled glass.

“What Houston is facing is that they don’t enjoy that ready local network of infrastructure to pull that material,” Harrison said. “There’s plenty of need for recycled glass all across the country. We just have a cost-to-transportation balance that makes it tricky.”

Harrison says in the past that cost was offset by the higher value of other recyclables like plastic or aluminum. And for the past few years that hasn’t been the case.

So what happens next for glass recycling in Houston?

For now, Houstonians are asked to take their old glass to one of 10 city depositories.

“We are working with all due speed to come up with a new vehicle where we can receive this glass in the most economically valuable condition for processing,” Harry Hayes, the city’s solid waste director, says. “We don’t want it in the landfill.”

Bucey says his company, maybe in partnership with glass manufacturing firms, will place at least 10 more containers on city property. That will make it easier for residents to drop off their glass.

Will curbside glass recycling be back one day?

To that, Harry Hayes has only this to say: “We’re going to let the future unfurl or roll itself out. We’re going to have a good future.”

Whether that future includes glass recycling pickup probably depends on when and if demand for other recyclables goes back up.