Sustainability Notebook: Recycling’s rough patch; the resilience of glass

Ripple Glass hosted its second annual Kansas City Glass Recycling Summit on Thursday and Friday, bringing together recycling industry experts from across the country to talk about the future of their industry. Here are some highlights:

Recycling rough patch

Lower oil prices and China’s recent broad ban on imported recycling materials have both contributed to plummeting worldwide prices for many recyclables in the last couple years. That’s made an already volatile recycling market with thin profit margins even more fragile, said Susan Collins, president of Container Recycling Institute, a recycling research organization based in California.

Collins was a keynote speaker at this year’s summit, where she addressed the troubling reality currently facing the recycling industry. And though recycling markets have taken major hits in the past, she said, what makes these circumstances unique is how many different materials are dropping in value simultaneously. “I’ve been in recycling for almost 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.

Success in glass

There is a silver lining in all the turmoil. Despite several disrupted recycling markets, Collins said, glass recycling is still doing well. That’s, in part, because glass is heavy and expensive to transport, she said, so glass has remained a local market.

Ripple Glass, the Kansas City glass recycling company, has capitalized on that local market over the last nine years. The company, which launched in late 2009, has seen significant growth and recycled nearly 45,000 tons of glass last year. That’s up from 9,000 tons in 2010.

Ripple Glass President Mike Utz, formerly of Boulevard Brewing, said the company collects from 10 different states, selling the glass back to Owens Corning for the manufacturing of fiberglass insulation. Starting a glass recycling company wasn’t cheap, Utz said. Ripple Glass has invested $6 million in its plant, which uses sophisticated sorting machines to process the glass.

However, there are plenty of funding opportunities available for anyone looking to get involved in the local recycling scene, including local, state and regional grants. Utz said demand for quality glass pellets in the U.S. right now has no ceiling, making the effort well worth the investment.

Are bottle bills the future?

Some who work in the recycling industry want to see more states establish what they call bottle bills — laws that allow states to charge a deposit fee for products sold in glass bottles. Residents can then get that deposit back by bringing bottles back to recycling centers.

Collins said these laws incentivize recycling, reduce litter and result in less contamination than curbside recycling programs. Contamination happens when different recycling materials, such as paper, glass and plastic, get mixed together in the same bale, she said, and too much contamination can ruin the process. Nationwide, between 35 and 40 percent of recovered glass is actually some kind of contaminating material, she said, like paper or plastic.

Currently, 10 states have bottle bills, Waste 360 reports.

Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.

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