Pain in the glass 

Seeking solutions to the demise of glass recycling

Typically a recycling program fails because of apathetic citizens. But just the opposite has been the problem of Missoula’s glass-recycling program.

“It has been a victim of its own success,” says MontPIRG campus organizer Chris Zeech. “There’s just way too much supply and not enough demand.”

It seems the Missoula City/BFI glass-recycling program was doomed to fail from the beginning. Last year, both the Missoula City Council and Mayor Mike Kadas signed a pledge committing themselves to the recycling effort.

However, the commitment couldn’t change the fact that the only use for collected glass was as fill in roadbed cushion. Now the city’s Public Works Department has more glass fill than its needs, says Zeech.

Problems surfaced when environmentally-minded people from all over the county flocked to the recycling centers with bags and boxes full of glass. Because the cushion in the roadbeds is made up of only 10 percent glass fill, and there are only so many roads being laid, the city quickly found itself with a glass surplus.

“I would have had to order 80 years worth of cushion to use all the glass we have,” says city street Superintendent Brian Hensel.

When the city stopped needing glass, the centers had nothing to do with the recyclables and had to stop accepting them.

Even if the demand for glass fill didn’t dry up, there would be other obstacles to overcome. The glass is typically crushed into three-eighths of an inch-sized pieces. But sometimes longer, thinner shards pass through the crushers’ screens and these shards pose a safety risk. Not only are they dangerous for crews working on the roads, but they can be a hazard to pedestrians, says Hensel.

“Can you imagine laying these out on the streets?” he asks. “Sometimes they can’t pave these streets right away. I don’t want my kid walking out on that.”

All these problems have grabbed the attention of Rep. Tom Facey (D–Missoula), and members of the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG). After examining the issue, they have come to the conclusion that this problem is far bigger than just Missoula.

“What has been going on in Missoula is what has been going on across the state,” says Zeech of the collected glass surplus. “So it needs to be the whole state, not just towns, who find the solution.”

Facey and MontPIRG plan to make the uses for glass more desirable to both the state and private sector. Facey hopes the state will purchase a few small, portable crushers that cost around $50,000 apiece. These units are capable of pulverizing glass so fine and so clean that it’s safe enough for use in children’s sandboxes. In this form, it could be used not only in roadbeds but in concrete and asphalt, says Facey.

“The idea behind this is to establish a market for crushed glass in Montana,” he says.

One seemingly obvious solution would be passing legislation requiring all new state roadbeds to be made up of 10 percent glass fill. The drawback to this plan is that Montanans don’t use enough glass to provide that much fill, which means the state would be stuck importing glass—the cost of which would make the project impracticable, says Facey.

Another solution, which also seems palpable, is recycling old bottles into new ones. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Because Montana doesn’t have a bottling plant, the glass must be shipped out of state, probably to Seattle or Denver, to be recycled and is too expensive. Recycling companies gave up on this years ago because the price of glass became too depressed to turn a profit, according to Cindy Atkinson, marketing and sales director for Rocky Mountain Recycling.

While the politicians, activists and companies try to find an agreeable solution, Tom Ernst, the owner of Missoula Valley Recycling, urges people to keep pressuring decision makers. In a newsletter sent to his customers Ernst wrote:

“Ask your favorite county commissioner, or city council member to get back to the table, and solve this issue. One road construction supervisor related, ‘If the city really wanted to get rid of their glass, you wouldn’t have a problem.’”

Because it may be months until the area sees glass recycling return to Missoula, people dedicated to the effort need to come up with their own solutions. Something as simple as not buying glass is a great place to start, says Ernst.

After Ernst realized that about 85 percent of the glass his company picks up are beer bottles and the amount of beer cans they pick up is increasing, something dawned on him.

“We don’t have to throw out our glass or buy PBR in cans,” he says. “You can’t always change the system, but you can change habits.”

In fact, Missoula Valley Recycling is purchasing half-gallon growlers, which will be delivered to the company’s customers free of charge. On the back of the bottles will be a list of local breweries and taverns where the containers can be filled. Each time a person opts to fill up one of these growlers, 5.3 beer bottles will be eliminated from the waste stream headed toward the Missoula landfill, says Ernst.

While glass only makes up about 6 percent of Missoula’s landfill, saving landfill space for the toxic, non-inert substances is one of the main reasons to recycle or reuse glass, says Ernst.

One final alternative is offered by the Good Food Store. The store accepts glass jars with openings of two inches or wider, says lead cashier Chris Elliott. They can be dropped off clean any day of the week.

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