I’ve been hoarding glass bottles for a while now. Maybe a year. Not everything — just the big ones. Plenty of beer bottles have ended up in the trash. In fact, plenty of wine bottle got trashed too. But there’s something about a liquor bottle. It tends to hang around longer. I build up a relationship with a liquor bottle. It becomes like an old friend. Surely it deserves something better than the landfill.
Eventually I had a tub full of glass. It was so heavy I could barely lift it, and and when I did I worried the plastic tub itself might crack. But I managed to get it into the car and haul it off to Target in Metairie. There’s a recycling center right it front, in Customer Services. I practically filled up an entire grocery cart.
I try not to make a fetish out of recycling. To me, recycling is like voting. It is a civic duty, but it’s not the greatest duty. More like the least. Yes, I recycle. Yes, I vote. I don’t give myself airs that I’m saving the planet or society by these actions. Recycling became a habit for me in 1986 when I was living in Sweden, in a town called Kalix. We recycled just about everything and had very little trash leftover, and that seemed like a positive. I have tried to avoid obsessing about it like my friend Eric, who used to pick up every scrap he found on the streets and stuff it in his pocket to recycle later. I found that behavior charming but kind of overkill. I wonder if he still does that.
The City of New Orleans discontinued its recycling program after the flood of ’05. Since 2007 we’ve been paying Phoenix Recycling $14 per month to pick up our recyclable materials every other week. The base charge was $15 with a one-dollar discount for members of neighborhood organizations. They said they’d lower the price if they got enough subscribers, but that never happened. I didn’t like the system, but Phoenix provided excellent service, and we stuck with them, even when money was tight, because it seemed like the right thing to do.
That all ended last month. The City of New Orleans has (re)launched its curbside recycling program. I’d hoped Phoenix would get a piece of the action, but I guess they didn’t. Here’s a snippet from the last e-mail they sent me.
We’ve appreciated your support over the years. Ours is a niche business and the size changes constantly. You’ve made the decision to pay for something you deem important – together, we recycled over 20 million pounds in 3 years.
Back to glass. Phoenix stopped taking glass in late 2008, and the City of New Orleans doesn’t take glass either.
The authoritative resource on recycling here in New Orleans would appear to be Village Green from our public library. Download the “New Orleans Area Recycling Guide” for a 21-page booklet on the subject. They list three places that take glass, only two of which are available to private citizens: Target, and of course the Tulane Newcomb Art Department. But Newcomb takes only clear glass.
I’m mystified by this state of affairs. For years I have thought glass was the most recyclable of all products. Melt it down and you recapture almost 100% of the material. According to Wikipedia, “Glass recycling uses less energy than manufacturing glass from sand, lime and soda.” But apparently the economics are more complicated than that. They must be, otherwise there would be more of a market for glass. I don’t have faith in markets solving all problems, but it stands to reason that if glass had more value it would be accepted curbside.
Michael Munger makes the case against recycling in general and glass in particular in an article titled “Think Globally, Act Irrationally.” It’s published by the Library of Economics and Liberty, which is supported by the Liberty Fund, which was founded in 1960 by Pierre F. Goodrich in my old stomping grounds of Indianapolis. Small world. I’m not sure I agree with some of their ideological underpinnings, but Munger makes a persuasive argument.
The Billings Gazette would seem to be less ideologically driven, but the message is the same.
The economics of glass recycling have been marginal for some time.
Nationwide, only about 25 percent of glass containers are recycled. That’s compared to 31 percent of plastic containers, 45 percent of aluminum cans and 63 percent of steel cans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In northern Idaho, Kootenai County gave up collecting glass last year. In Oregon, which was the first of 11 states to adopt a bottle deposit law in 1971, Deschutes County stockpiled 1,000 tons of glass at its landfill before finally finding a use for it a couple years ago – as fill beneath an area for collecting compost.
Glass also has piled up at the landfill serving Albuquerque, N.M., where officials this year announced that a manufacturer of water-absorbing horticultural stones would eventually use up their stockpiles. New York City gave up glass recycling from 2002 to 2004 because officials decided it was too costly.
In a sense, glass ought to be the perfect commodity to recycle. It can be recycled an infinite number of times. Melting down one glass bottle and making another isn’t particularly complicated or especially costly.
The challenge is that the main ingredient in glass, sand, is plentiful and cheap – often cheaper than cullet, which is glass that has been prepared for recycling.
Used glass must be sorted by color and cleaned before it can be crushed into cullet that is suitable for recycling into new containers. That contributes to much of the cost of recycling glass, said Joe Cattaneo, president of the Glass Packaging Institute in Alexandria, Va.
“It’s not just a glass company buying it from your municipal waste company, or recycling company,” Cattaneo said. “Some entity has to clean it so it meets the specifications of mixing it with sand, soda ash and limestone.”
Another cost is transportation. The farther away a community is from glass processors and container manufacturers, he said, the more expensive it is to recycle it.
Clearly, reduction and reuse are even better than recycling. It’s a shame that we seem to have lost what bottle collection programs we used to have in this country. A friend on Facebook suggested selling bottles on Etsy or eBay as craft supplies. Maybe I will start saving the most interesting bottles and sending the rest to the landfill.
My friend Wendy says Houston takes glass at dropoff centers. Bay St. Louis takes glass as part of their curbside program. Are these communities able to make the economics work, or are they taking a loss on glass to make people feel better about themselves? I have an image of in my mind that we are “recycling our way to oblivion,” worrying about trivialities in the midst of the Holocene extinction. But this is just a feeling. What’s the reality?