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January 19, 2006

Pain in the Glass

A random call from a reporter piqued my interest -- does recycling glass really save energy?  That is, after you take into consideration all of the energy spent to collect glass from people's homes, truck the collected glass to a distribution center, route it to a glass manufacturer, and then melt it down for reuse, does glass recycling really save anything, compared with using virgin materials?

I was actually fearing the worst here.  Obviously, given all of the energy costs of recycling glass, it's conceivable that it isn't a very good deal for the environment.  Plus the reporter was asking specifically because he'd heard some mention that the benefits of glass recycling were overblown.

As it turns out, though, I shouldn't have worried.  From just about every serious analysis I dug up, it seems that glass recycling really does save energy, compared with using virgin material.  Some handy citations: here, here, here, and this extensive lit. review (pdf).

But as with most things, there is a bit of a twist.

As several of the studies point out, glass recycling saves energy -- but much less energy per ton of glass than, say, recycling newspaper, steel, and aluminum. (See, e.g., page 31 of the lit. review.)  And because the theoretical energy savings of glass recycling appear to be relatively slim, it could mean that actual savings could depend on lots of devilish details -- how far the glass is shipped, how dispersed are the neighborhoods from which glass is collected, whether people make special car trips to recycling centers, etc. 

One of those devilish details -- covered here, about 3/4 of the way down the page -- is the type of furnace used to melt the recycled glass.  From the article...

[C]leaner-operating electric furnaces...use less energy and thus create less emissions than natural gas-powered furnaces, [but]  cannot use as much recycled glass, so they are not as efficient.

That is, by using an efficient, low-emissions furnace, you can actually decrease the overall energy efficiency of your glass recycling operation.  Darn.

And then there's this:  even though using recycled glass does appear to have a lower environmental cost than using virgin materials, the environmental cost is not zero.  Obviously--from an energy standpoint at least--it's better to drink water from the tap than water shipped in glass bottles, even if the bottles are made from recycled glass. 

But more to the point, it may be that buying a drink in a lightweight plastic bottle uses less energy than buying a beverage in container made from recycled glass -- even if the glass bottle is re-recycled, and the plastic bottle just gets thrown away after a single use.  This study from Israel (pdf) suggests as much -- though it points out that this is only true for certain types of plastics.  And in the same vein, this analysis from the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Analysis suggests that paperboard cartons have a lower environmental cost than bottles made from recycled glass.

Of course, I'm no expert here.  All the information I have on the subject comes from a bit of googling -- and much of it seems to be at least a decade old.  But it looks like glass recycling really is worthwhile...and, simultaneously, that the gradual trend among beverage bottlers to replace glass with plastic is in all likelihood a good thing.

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Is "the gradual trend among beverage bottlers to replace glass with plastic is in all likelihood a good thing"? I would say it is not.

If we are to seriously discuss the hidden costs we must go further in the process than the energy and economic issues alone. We must ask, are there recycling services available in the community at question at all? What is the usage of these services if they exist? What are the alternative fates of these products if they are not recycled? Do these materials have other assets and liabilities?

Many areas of the US and especially the developing world have no recycling services. They are expensive to run. Very few municipalities make recycling compliance a necessity by checking trash for mixed materials and levying fines. Costs of reusing bottles are admittedly higher, but the costs of disposing of plastic wastes are externalized to the public from the private sector and add up considerably, especially in the developing world or in rural US where burning of plastics and wastes in general is high. This has become the major source of persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) like dioxin which travel through the atmosphere to be deposited anywhere and into our food, our bodies, our breast milk, our children. Regulations worked and phased out corporate and hospital emissions so now it is unregulated consumers that have emerged as the biggest polluters and without surveillance who knows how much PBTs are being discharged. Glass won't do that.

Furthermore, hormone-disrupting chemicals are leached off of plastics into the foods they contain throughout their thousand-year lifetime, but at higher doses when they are newest - when we use them. Many of these effects are cummumative and synergistic with other chemicals in our bodies having effects we have only begun to understand in the medical literature. Glass won't do that.

I remember living in Mexico in the mid eighties. Glass bottle reusing was a thriving cottage industry for the poor, the homeless, the hungry to make enough money to eat. This incentive ensured that all sectors of society cared not to break bottles unnecessarily and that their fates were more likely to be reused. Now there is a blight on the countryside with lighter than water plastics being carried far and wide by truck, by the wind and waters, to pollute the land. With no incentive, or, indeed, no programs for recycling, the trash piles up and/or is burned. Corporations found another way to externalize costs and return greater profits to their shareholders, so this is declared a victory.

My solutions? Go to your local thrift store with $20. Purchase a large canvas bag with a strong, comfortable shoulder strap. Fill it with glass mason jars for storage of your foods at home. Purchase these foods in the bulk foods are of your local co-op or the like. Purchase a stainless steel thermos for your daily use and reuse it. You can even recycle your wash water into your garden and back into food. The extra weight and effort will help lean you down and reduce your body burden of PBTs. Share with others this lifestyle. “Live simply that others may simply live”, said Gandhi. He also said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I don't see politicians or captains of industry doing this. No money in it. You've gone off the grid.

I'll see you there!

Posted by: Michael Greenberg | Jan 19, 2006 3:08:31 PM

Speaking only anecdotally here . . . it seems to me that the advent of very inexpensive plastic bottles, plus big box retailing, have dramatically increased the consumption of packaged water.

When it's a substitute for sugar water, that's probably a health gain. But I wonder how much of it is substituted for tap water.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Jan 19, 2006 3:37:14 PM

Whatever happened to reusables? You apply the "Three R's" in priority, reduce, reuse, THEN, and only then, recycle

When I was a kid, bottles were too valuable to throw away OR recycle. And us kids could make a mint collecting them and turning them in. In the late '60's, reusable bottles were worth a nickel -- just what "disposables" are worth today. Counting for inflation, the value of a reusable should be at least 20 cents!

It's only a matter of time. Energy prices will continue to increase to the point that we'll be forced to reuse bottles again. But we should be starting NOW!

Posted by: Jan Steinman | Jan 19, 2006 5:37:31 PM

Excellent ideas, y'all.

Fresh tap water packed in a cool looking and reusable thermos. Plus, "the extra weight and effort will help lean you down."

Also, Cascadia's tap water tastes much better than bottled water, anyway!

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Jan 19, 2006 5:48:28 PM

Thirty-odd years ago, I operated one of the first community recycling programs in the U.S. for several years. We were very cognizant, even then, of the energy conservation advantages of recycling, but we also knew that re-using things is far and away the most energy and materials efficient way of recycling and we encouraged that form of recycling wherever we could.

Our slogan was "If everything that is now used just once, were to be used just twice, then the amount of resources consumed for those things would be cut in half." And, of course, the corollary, which even the dimmest could see, every additional re-use of an item reduces the resource use even further.

One simple thing we did was culling out every usable item that came thru our centers (Mason jars, cooking utensils, jelly glasses, toys....) and putting them out for whoever needed them to take. My wife and I still use a baking pan I got that way, and it wasn't new when I got it. Its twin finally developed a couple of small holes a year or two ago and went into the recycling bin to become new steel, 35 years after someone decided that it wasn't worth keeping.

Another way was encouraging our community to buy beverages in refillable bottles. The "disposable" beverage container devolution was just hitting its stride in the early 70's and most soft drinks were still available in refillable, deposit bottles which were typically refilled in small local bottling plants. Beer was still available in refillable deposit bottles, but the brewing industry was consolidating rapidly and doing its dead level best to discourage its customers from buying its products in refillable bottles.

So, we sought out the location of stores which still offered beer in refillable bottles and publicized their location. But we were trying stop a freight train with our bare hands. Now there are essentially no beer or soft drinks packaged in refillable bottles.

The devolution of beverages from a local industry with local brands and an energy-efficient packaging system to a heavily concentrated one with national brands and a business model which absolutely requires its packaging to be discarded or, at best, recycled, is one of the many tragedies of modern American capitalism.

In point of fact, studies from the early 70's showed that in terms of EROEI (or net energy as we called it then), virtually all canned and bottled foods should be packaged in refillable deposit containers.

It's certainly possible to envision a system where this is possible. We already have a system of standardized containers (Mason jars) which could be made a little sturdier (the way they were 50 or 60 years) to
reduce breakage. Jars would not have to be clear -- light sensitive foods could be packaged in brown glass, the way beer is now. (You did know that's why proper beer bottles are brown, didn't you?)

Grocery shoppers would buy their green beans, or pickles or tomato sauce in 1/2 pint, pint or quart jars and pay a deposit which would cover the cost of the jar. Then the shopper could either keep the jar for home use (some pasta sauces are currently packaged in such jars, but no deposit is charged for them) or return it for the deposit. The stores collecting the jars returned for deposits would sell them to
local businesses which would wash, sterilize and box them up for resale to food packing businesses.

And, as in days gone by, kids could earn money going door to door, collecting deposit jars to return for people who are too busy to do it themselves.

Likewise, people could donate their excess jars to community canneries such as the LDS churches operate.

The amount of materials and energy necessary to package food would plummet, local employment would increase, and materials winding up in landfills would decline since people are much more inclined to "recycle" if they know they're throwing out 75 cents or a dollar everytime they discard a food container.

Posted by: Alan | Jan 20, 2006 5:10:23 PM

There are a couple issues that have not been touched on. First the move to one-way containers was part of a consolidation in the bottling industry. It used to be there were many small bottling companies. Every small town had one that just bought the syrup from the Coca-Cola company. They then bottles soft drinks, distributed them locally and the delivery truck picked up the empties to be washed an reused. That distribution and collection system doesn't work if you have one plant in California that distributes to the entire region. Thus the move to single use containers that could be shipped without having to be stored and returned.

The problem with re-use with beverage containers is not only the cost of transporting them but washing and sterlizing them. I don't know what the current balance sheet on energy and environmental costs is. If you want to know, I would check with folks who have been promoting the bottle bill around the country. You could start with OSPIRG since the PIRG's were one of the big backers of bottle bills.

Posted by: Ross Williams | Jan 20, 2006 8:10:00 PM