Since the dawning of modern recycling in the 1970s, glass has been the pariah commodity. Although it’s possible to do so, glass rarely gets recycled because of the high costs involved, both fiscally and environmentally. Profit margins on glass recycling are as thin as pane-glass windows, and broken just as easily, while shipping it often uses enough fossil fuel to counteract benefits for the planet.
Salt Lake City currently has just a handful of places to drop off glass for recycling, and many cities in Utah have no glass program at all. Yet, Salt Lake City may actually be ahead of the game, since many progressive municipalities across the country don’t collect glass. This will be especially true if the Salt Lake City Council approves an increase in the number of glass recycling drop-off locations to almost 20, a proposal expected to be heard in May.
Debbie Lyons, Salt Lake City’s recycling program coordinator, says the city would waste resources collecting more glass from residents than it can recycle and sell to local manufactures. Recycling locally saves on transportation costs, thereby lowering the cost to manufacturers. “It is very expensive to ship glass, so we try not to ship it,” Lyons says. “If you’re transporting [glass], oftentimes you reach the weight limit of a truck [or train] … so the box car is half-filled, and you can’t put any more in.”
Indeed, Park City’s Recycle Utah stopped accepting glass for a time in 2008 when market demand for recycled glass slumped. The interruption was mostly due to the cost it takes to truck the glass even for the short stint from Park City to a recycling facility on Salt Lake City’s west side.
Shipping, of course, involves burning fossil fuels, which itself costs money and negatively impacts air quality.
So, it’s not ideal to ship glass for recycling, but it can be done. Richard Leonard is the owner of Glass Recycle Group, which operates the Wasatch Front’s only two glass recycling facilities, in Salt Lake City and Lehi. His company currently recycles about 400 tons of glass per month, about 200 tons of it from Salt Lake City’s drop-off dumpsters, which it sells to local fiberglass manufacturers. The other 200 tons come from as far away as Las Vegas and Wendover, Nev. With the recent addition of the Lehi facility, his recycling capacity is about 2,000 tons per month, prompting Salt Lake City’s new push for more drop-off locations.
Thirteen years ago, in partnership with Owens Corning, an insulation and building materials manufacturer, Leonard started Glass Recycle Group as a retirement project. Now 70, Leonard hasn’t turned a profit—yet. “I saw the opportunity of recycling glass and keeping it out of the landfill and making some money. What’s happened is one way or the other, we spent $2 million, and I haven’t made any money. We’re just on the verge of really starting to make some money,” he says. “My wife calls it my money-draining hobby.”
He says his company has changed the game in recycling glass, patenting a process that reduces the startup costs of new facilities. Rather than millions, Leonard can build a glassrecycling unit for just $175,000. “So every community, really, can start recycling their glass,” he says.
But science and innovation aren’t the only game-changers in this saga. Government regulation prodded the innovation.
“What’s really brought this on,” Leonard says, “is … in order to get a building permit in a lot of states, you must say that you’re going to use so much recycled material to get a building permit.” But that’s mostly in states like California, Leonard says, snickering, as he adds, “In the most right-wing state in the country—Utah—they think recycling is a sin.”
If not sinful, recycling glass hasn’t always seemed crucial.
Glass is almost entirely natural and completely nontoxic. And unlike oil, which is necessary for new production of plastics, the commodities used to make glass—like sand—are not in short supply.
Lyons, who’s held her position since 1995, when there was just one glass drop-off location in Salt Lake City, says economics should not automatically doom recycling programs. “There’s a misconception, I think, that recycling should pay for itself. But garbage doesn’t pay for itself,” she says. She’s hopeful that Salt Lake City will expand its glass-recycling program because producing new glass impacts the environment even if it’s not poisonous or in short supply, since glass in the trash still requires landfill space.
Even with the expanded drop-off program, glass will still be a bit of a pariah. Lyons says the city won’t pick up glass in the curbside recycling bins because broken glass can ruin paper recycling machines.