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Citizens in many communities in the Upstate are dismayed by recent announcements that they will no longer be able to recycle their household glass. Unfortunately, the cities and counties affected have no choice in the matter, because there are no longer any local materials recovery facilities (MRFs) that accept glass.
A successful glass recycling program must have a number of supporting elements: a MRF willing to invest in glass-separating technology and the continued damage that fugitive glass fragments do to the rest of the equipment, a nearby glass processor, ample supply, and a secondary market that gives economic value to recycled glass. Unfortunately in the Upstate, we have lost all four of these elements over the past year. If a community lacks all or most of these elements, an alternative approach is to create an economic incentive by charging more for trash disposal than for recycling collection, as is the case for bars and restaurants in Charleston, but not in the Upstate.
So how did we get here?
The rise and fall of glass began with the recognition that American citizens prefer single-stream recycling collection (all recyclables in one container, no sorting). The industry found that recycling participation increased significantly with the introduction of single-stream, and technology evolved to make the MRF sorting process surprisingly efficient. Initially, glass was not part of that collected stream, but glass removal technology (the first item removed from the combined stream because of the damage it can cause) evolved as well, and eventually both demand and technology met each other. About five years ago, MRF’s began agreeing to accept glass into the single stream. Communities celebrated this addition. It became clear that South Carolina would need to provide a solid secondary market and processor supply in order to sustain this addition. There must be multiple processors throughout the state, because glass is heavy to transport. The closer the processor is, the better. But processors – companies that sort and grind the glass for various end purposes such as new bottles and road and cement materials – require a very large supply in order to invest significantly in a state.
Enter the conservation community.
In 2011, conservation organizations across the state, led by Upstate Forever, the Coastal Conservation League, Conservation Voters of South Carolina, the Sierra Club and others, joined forces with the Department of Commerce’s Recycling Markets Development Advisory Committee, the recycling industry, the Southeast Recycling Development Committee, and processors such as Strategic Materials and Reflective Recycling to draft an Alcoholic Beverage Container (ABC) Recycling Bill, introduced by Senator Ray Cleary. The bill was patterned after North Carolina’s ABC Bill, which was a key factor in Strategic Materials’ decision to invest millions of dollars in multiple North Carolina processing operations. An ABC Bill guarantees a high volume of glass diversion by requiring licensed bars and restaurants to recycle beverage containers (or to show why this requirement is not feasible due to space considerations or a lack of reasonably priced recycling vendors in the area). The South Carolina bill was opposed by the hospitality industry, watered down to require that bars and restaurants only seek quotes, and ultimately failed to pass. This was the beginning of the end of glass recycling in South Carolina.
During the past four years, the prices that other commodities could command – such as metal, plastic and cardboard – propped up recycling programs in South Carolina until this past spring. But recycling commodity prices follow oil prices, and as oil prices have fallen dramatically, so has the value of the contents of our recycling bin. In 2016, one of the Upstate’s two MRF’s shut down and our one lone glass processor, located in Pacolet, closed its doors. The remaining MRF announced it would stop accepting glass shortly thereafter. There was nowhere to take it without incurring expense far greater than its value and at the same time, fugitive glass fragments were continuing to ruin their equipment and contaminate otherwise recyclable loads of paper, cardboard and plastic. When a load is contaminated, it must be landfilled.
A bottle deposit program can help increase recycling volume (while reducing litter), but many in the recycling and container industries oppose such programs because they reduce competition in the market for commodities. In addition, the South Carolina Legislature generally will not approve a program that adds any level of government bureaucracy, as deposit programs do.
There are a couple of exceptions to this trend in South Carolina. One is Charleston County – they continue to operate a glass collection program within their single stream program. But bars and restaurants on the peninsula pay an additional fee for trash disposal. This incentivizes diversion of bottles and cans into recycling as a competitive alternative. This also enables companies like Fisher Recycling to both collect glass through its contracted recycling pick-up operations and then to turn around and manufacture glass aggregate countertops as well as glass aggregate for landscaping and walkways.
The other exception is the Upstate’s own Pickens County. Years ago, Pickens County built its own MRF at the same site that serves as their transfer station (they do not have their own landfill and must pay tipping fees elsewhere – this makes the MRF cost effective for them as a way to divert tonnage). They use prison labor to sort the recycling stream that is picked up from their convenience centers and at the moment, they have been able to send their sorted glass to a processor in Georgia, another state with a robust processor supply. If other counties were to follow suit, it would require a significant amount of land and capital investment, but some communities may want to explore this model. Its success is still dependent upon reasonably priced transport to an out-of-state processor, however, and the farther away a county is from a Georgia or North Carolina processor, the more expensive it would be.
There are a few bright spots in recycling news. First, MRF technology has evolved, and cartons and tetra-packs – such as those for soymilk, soup, boxed wine, and juice boxes – CAN now be accepted into the single-stream recycling process. And even though it pains many of us to throw away glass, we should keep in mind that glass is made mostly from sand – not trees or oil. And glass is not toxic, so it is will not leach out of landfills and contribute to pollution. In addition, glass only accounts for 2-4% of tonnage landfilled; In contrast, paper and organics each make up around 30% of landfill tonnage. We can clearly make more of an impact by improving paper recycling and composting rates.
A 17-minute podcast for the City of Spartanburg with Jes Sdao Swanson, Recycling Coordinator for Spartanburg County, and Shelley Robbins, Sustainable Communities Project Manager for Upstate Forever, can be accessed here.