Until October 2014, Lawrence didn’t have a citywide curbside recycling program. But it sure had a lot of glass bottles.
Prior to the city starting its curbside recycling program, the predominant way for residents to recycle glass was to haul their bottles, jars and other glass items to large bins scattered around town, where Kansas City-based Ripple Glass would take them and then sell the glass to be turned into new bottles or fiberglass insulation.
The system worked OK, but wouldn’t it be much better if Lawrence residents could simply throw their glass in a single container with all the rest of their recycling, push it to the curb and watch city crews haul it away?
The city implemented such a single-stream recycling program in October 2014, and Lawrence residents may be assuming they’re greener than ever when it comes to recycling glass.
The latest numbers from the program, though, suggest otherwise.
The glass recycling numbers indicate that less glass is being recycled — turned into products such as fiberglass, bottles and other consumer items — than prior to the start of the city’s curbside recycling program.
Ripple Glass is still the primary recipient of the city’s glass, but it now is receiving 40 percent less glass from Lawrence than it did prior to the curbside recycling program. The city’s numbers indicate only about 24 percent of the glass collected by city crews makes its way to Ripple Glass.
Here’s what numbers from Ripple Glass and the city show:
• Immediately prior to the city starting its curbside recycling program, Ripple was receiving, on average, 100 tons of glass per month from its bins in Lawrence.
• After the city’s curbside recycling program began, Ripple’s monthly average from its Lawrence bins and from the city’s new curbside recycling service dropped to about 60 tons per month, according to numbers from Ripple and the city. In other words, after the city started a program that allows essentially every resident in the city to set out glass at the curb, Ripple is receiving 40 percent less glass than it did prior to the start of the expansive curbside program.
A leader with Ripple Glass said the results have been predictable. When cities allow recycling programs to mix glass with other recyclables, it is common for the glass to become contaminated and unusable for most recycling purposes.
“None of this is a surprise,” said Jeff Krum, a principal of Ripple. “Since the curbside recycling program began, the glass collected has dropped dramatically. Generally speaking, in excess of 50 percent of glass collected nationally (through single-stream curbside recycling) is landfilled because it can’t be separated.”
Local recycling officials say Lawrence’s glass isn’t going in the landfill. But if it’s not going to Ripple Glass for recycling, where is it going?
In short, it is in storage.
Perry-based Hamm Inc. is the contractor hired by the city to process glass and other materials collected in the curbside recycling program.
Hamm told the Journal-World it has about 318 tons of glass shards that it has stockpiled and hopes to find a use for in the future. Charlie Sedlock, a division manager for the company, said the company has been mixing the glass shards with gravel produced at Hamm-operated quarries. The hope is the glass-infused aggregate can be used for road projects and other such construction-related uses. The idea is the use of glass will cut down on the amount of gravel that has to be mined. Thus far, though, a buyer hasn’t been found for the glass-infused gravel.
Finding one may be difficult, several experts said.
Delbert E. Day is a professor of ceramic engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology and the author of a handbook on using glass as part of the roadbuilding process. He said many cities including New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia have tried to use glass cullet as an aggregate in building roads but discontinued it after several years.
Day said the process is expensive and that it is difficult to get enough glass to complete even the most moderate of construction projects. Using recycled glass to create fiberglass, glass bottles or other such consumer goods is more desirable, he said.
“The best use of glass is to remelt it in the glass manufacturing process,” Day said.
Some industry leaders also have concerns with cities who say mixing glass with gravel is a form of recycling. Curt Bucey is the president and COO of the glass division of Strategic Materials, the largest recycler of glass in North America. His company cleans contaminated glass shards so they can be used to make products such as fiberglass and bottles. He’s frustrated by claims that mixing glass with gravel is an accepted recycled product.
“(Recycling) operators call that recycling,” he said. “I don’t. It is not what the public thinks is recycling. It is not what the public thinks it is paying for.”
City officials are set to celebrate the first year of operations for Lawrence’s curbside recycling program. City Hall leaders announced that the single-stream, curbside recycling program collected 5,317 tons of material during is first 12 months of operation. The city, along with Kansas University’s Center for Sustainability, will host a “family fun” celebration to commemorate the first year of operations on Nov. 13 at Sports Pavilion Lawrence at Rock Chalk Park.
Figuring out the numbers behind the city’s glass recycling program has been challenging. The Journal-World began seeking numbers from the city and Hamm about three weeks ago. Ultimately, Hamm and the city ended up disagreeing on some of the numbers.
Sedlock believes Hamm is actually providing more glass to Ripple than what Ripple has reported. Sedlock said his records show Ripple has received 68 more tons — or about 38 percent more than what Ripple’s records show. Ripple officials said they are confident their numbers are accurate. Regardless, both sets of numbers show far less glass from Lawrence is being recycled by Ripple compared to a year ago.
Sedlock said he also thinks Ripple is getting less glass in Lawrence, in part, because Wal-Mart closed its recycling drop-off center on south Iowa Street in early 2015. Sedlock said the location was a popular place for rural residents of the county to drop off glass. Wal-Mart officials said they closed the facility because demand dropped off significantly after the city started its curbside recycling program.
The amount of glass being stockpiled by Hamm also is in question. Sedlock believes Hamm has 318 tons of the material stockpiled, but that is based off an estimate.
Crews at the recycling processing center run by Hamm do not weigh each type of material — such as glass, plastic and newsprint — that comes in through the city’s curbside recycling program. Instead, they weigh the total amount of material and then estimate the percentage of each material type. Sedlock is estimating about 10 percent to 13 percent of all the material in the curbside recycling program is glass, and he uses that percentage to estimate that 318 tons of glass shards are in storage.
But the city, based on some testing done in February and this month, estimates 18 percent of all the material in the curbside program is glass. A total of 18 percent is consistent with national averages. If you use the city’s numbers, there’s significantly more glass in storage than the 318 tons, or else some glass is unaccounted for.
Sedlock said Hamm has not been putting any of the glass in the landfill that is operated by Hamm. Krum, the Ripple official, said he is worried about Lawrence glass ending up in a landfill at some point.
“That is what is often done at other landfills,” Krum said. “It’s well publicized. When you add glass to single-stream recycling, it is not a good idea, and that is well documented also.”
Lawrence City Commissioner Stuart Boley — who was elected in April, after the recycling program began — said he planned to talk to staff about glass recycling.
“These are good questions, and I don’t have any answers,” Boley said. “If single-stream with glass isn’t the answer then we need to come up with an answer that works for the citizens of Lawrence. What you want to do is improve things. If there is a way to make it better, let’s do it.”
Paying the glass bill
Past city commissions certainly have had conversations about how to deal with glass. Prior to creating the curbside recycling program, the city appointed a task force to study recycling issues. That task force stopped short of recommending glass be included as part of the single-stream, curbside program. The chair of the task force, then-City Commissioner Aron Cromwell, on several occasions expressed concerns that glass could not feasibly be part of the curbside program because of the likelihood that the glass would become contaminated by the other materials.
Originally, only one of the companies bidding to be the city’s recycling contractor proposed that glass be part of the single-stream, curbside recycling program.
But city commissioners heard multiple comments from residents that glass needed to be included in the items they could recycle as part of the curbside program. Ultimately, Hamm altered its proposal to include glass, but it also added a $45 per ton tipping fee to its proposal. The city now pays $45 for every ton of material that is delivered to the Hamm processing center. One company that bid on the project did not include such a fee. A second company did. The city has paid $240,000 in tipping fees since the program began.
Sedlock said the city is getting a good deal on the recycling services provided to the city.
He said Hamm has among the best equipment in the world to process the glass, and he said the equipment is being fine-tuned to process more glass that can be used by Ripple. Hamm spent several million dollars renovating the former Lacy steel building at Kansas Highway 32 and U.S. Highway 24-40 to accommodate the German-made recycling system, which is the first one installed in America.
“This is a world-class operation,” Sedlock said.
Krum said Ripple officials worked hard to convince city officials that adding glass to the curbside program would actually reduce the amount of glass being recycled.
“When the city was considering adopting this program, we told anyone who would listen, including the council, that commingling glass with other recycled materials is not a good idea.”
Glass recycling elsewhere
Lawrence is not alone in trying to figure out the glass equation. Other cities across the country also added glass to their single-stream recycling programs. Now, some are pulling back on the idea.
“The trouble with glass is the more you handle it, the more it breaks,” said John Rarig, recycling coordinator for Harrisburg, Penn., where glass was pulled from curbside recycling last spring. “Single-stream recycling just beats the living daylights out of it.”
Closer to Lawrence, a number of city and county governments already have wrestled with glass recycling over the years.
Olathe’s curbside recycling program is much like Lawrence’s, except it has been going on much longer and it does not commingle glass, said Kent Seyfried, Olathe’s solid waste manager.
Olathe learned from experience that glass in a single-stream pickup is problematic, Seyfried said, so Olathe depends on Ripple and its containers.
“There is a lot of glass going through Ripple,” Seyfried said. “We get the calls on why we don’t provide it, but all you can do is tell them why.”
Newton, Kan., is believed to be one of the first in the state to start a municipal curbside recycling program in 1999, said Randy Jackson, street and sanitation superintendent, and Carl Burch, sanitation services supervisor.
Because of fears that space in the landfill was being depleted, recycling is mandatory, and violators can be ticketed, they said.
The city eventually moved to single-stream recycling that included glass. But Jackson said the private waste company that the city contracts with does not charge them extra for having glass.
The glass that is collected is sent to Owens Corning, they said, but Newton doesn’t keep track of how much of the total glass collected actually gets recycled.
In 2011, Shawnee County moved to curbside recycling that included glass and awarded Waste Management the contract for recycling and trash disposal.
Lisa Disbrow, spokeswoman for Waste Management of Kansas, a division of the larger company, said most of the glass that is picked up at curbside in Shawnee County goes to the landfill.
“Contamination is very high with the Shawnee County recycling,” she said.
A county sanitation department representative said residents do not have to pay an additional fee for glass recycling, unlike in Lawrence.
David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management, once trumpeted curbside glass recycling. But now he has flipped positions on the topic. Beginning last year, Steiner said in a number of publications that curbside-collected glass has become a serious problem for the recycling industry because there is no viable market to recycle the broken shards, and the shards often contaminate other materials.
There are communities where curbside glass recycling works well.
Since 1992, Portland and the state of Oregon have been doing curbside recycling that includes glass, said Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling manager in Portland.
The difference is, Walker said, the glass is kept separate from the other recyclables by putting it in a separate container or bin. And when it is picked up, it is put in a separate compartment in the truck so that it does not become contaminated. He said a dual curbside pickup is also used in Canada and Europe.
“Glass is the only breakable thing, and it will get embedded in paper; the grit from the glass also causes issues,” Walker said. “Glass is one more element of a challenging collection system.”
In Lawrence, Deffenbaugh had suggested such a program when it bid on the curbside recycling with Hamm, said Kathy Richardson, division manager for the city’s solid waste operations. But city commissioners at the time wanted glass included in the single-stream program.
In April, the city of Harrisburg told its citizens to stop putting glass with the other recyclables at the curb, Rarig said.
“We don’t have a real easy way to get rid of the glass,” Rarig said.
Rarig said glass causes three major problems: It costs, it tears up the recycling machinery, and “it contaminates everything.”
Rarig said the problems caused by glass forced his community to reverse course.
“Because of the lousy market for glass around here, they would give us more money if we didn’t have the glass,” he said.
This story has been changed to clarify a sentence that said “other companies that bid on the project did not include a tipping fee.” One bidder did not include a tipping fee, but a bid by another company did.