Glass to Trash: A Solution in the Works

Mar 5, 2013

Since last summer, all the glass you put into your recycling bin has been dumped into the landfill with the rest of the garbage. It was due to legislation passed in the General Assembly last session. But after about eight months of work, and more than 13,000 tons of glass thrown away, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation--the company that runs the state landfill-- may have finally found a home for recyclable glass.

All Things Considered Host Dave Fallon talks about this latest development with Rhode Island Public Radio’s environment reporter, Bradley Campbell.

DAVE: Bradley, what is currently happening to the state's recycled glass?

BRADLEY: Well, for the past two months or so the Central Landfill has been sending test shipments of glass to a company called Strategic Materials in Franklin, Massachusetts. Strategic is a major glass recycler for the region.

DAVE: Glass hasn’t always been thrown away with the rest of the trash, Bradley, walk us through the past years and what’s been happening to the glass we take to the curb.

BRADLEY: Let’s go back to 2003. That’s when the landfill couldn't find a company to buy and recycle the glass, so it reused it instead. It mixed the glass in with construction and demolition debris as part of a daily cover material to go over the garbage. Such cover material is required by law. The landfill says it was a great way to reuse the glass. It was cheap. It was needed. And it was an effective cover.

DAVE: But your reporting last summer broke the news that using glass as part of the cover material had stopped due to an amendment slipped into legislation.

BRADLEY: Yep. And that legislation was a response to terrible smells coming from the landfill, a potent rotten egg odor that you could smell for miles. Trying to prevent that odor from returning, the amended state law banned the use of construction and demolition debris as cover material. It listed various materials that comprise construction and demolition debris, and at the end of the list it included the words: and glass. The inclusion of glass puzzled the Department of Environmental Management and many others, including the landfill. And those two words, “and glass,” prevented the landfill from mixing in the glass as cover material. So with no where else to go the landfill was forced to treat the glass like garbage.

DAVE: And wasn’t much of this a result of the quality of the glass the landfill is able to ship?

BRADLEY: Right. When the landfill converted to single stream recycling-- that’s where you throw your glass and paper all in one bin--that switch created a problem. Paper gets mixed in with the glass and after it goes through the sorting system it leaves the glass looking like this dirty sand and confetti mixture. That makes the glass unsellable. But the landfill’s Sarah Kite says they’ve installed a vacuum system to try and capture the paper to create a better quality glass. She adds it’s not a perfect fix as the volume of paper recycled is overwhelming.

DAVE: But it seems as though they’re producing a quality that is now good enough for the recycling company in Massachusetts to take it.

BRADLEY: It seems that way, but it’s important to know that not all of the glass is now being recycled. Right now, the landfill says it’s shipping about 1-2 loads a day. All the rest is still ending up at the dump, mingling with old toothbrushes, sneakers and food waste.

DAVE: Is there something that’s prohibiting them from shipping all the glass to Massachusetts?

BRADLEY: The cost. Glass is heavy. And shipping to another state is certainly more expensive than reusing it in the landfill. Right now, the Central Landfill is waiting for its Board of Commissioners to approve a transportation contract before they can start shipping all the glass.

DAVE: This seems to fix the problem in the short term, but what would a long term solution look like.

BRADLEY: Well, the landfill says a more robust market for glass is the ultimate solution. The ideal problem solver would be a glass recycler move and set-up shop in the state.

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