Most Local Glass Isn't Recycled. Northern Virginia Jurisdictions Are Changing That It's the first time in years that glass in the area is actually being turned into new glass.
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Most Local Glass Isn't Recycled. Northern Virginia Jurisdictions Are Changing That

The result when glass bottles are processed by Fairfax County's glass crushing machine. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

Ah, the ease of tossing your empty kombucha bottle in a recycling bin, walking away feeling cleansed of your environmental sins, and buzzed from the mildly fermented beverage.

But the dirty little secret is that much of the glass that goes into recycling bins is never recycled. When bottles and jars are tossed into curbside bins with other recyclables, they break into bits that are difficult to separate out. After sorting, the glass ends up in a pile too contaminated to recycle.

"If you look at the pile, it's really even hard to tell there's glass in there," says Eric Forbes with Fairfax County's solid waste management program. "There's a lot of small bits of paper and plastics that are too small for the recycling system to pull out."

That's why Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and a handful of other jurisdictions have recently stopped accepting glass in curbside recycling bins. It wasn't getting recycled anyway, and collecting it with other recycling cost more than just sending it to a landfill. In place of curbside recycling for glass, they now offer residents glass drop off sites where the glass is then recycled into new bottles and other products. It's the first time in years glass in the area is actually being turned into new glass.

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The glass is collected from a network of more than two dozen purple dumpsters and then taken to Fairfax County's I-66 transfer station, where it is crushed by a gigantic glass crushing machine. Forbes says the crushed material is high quality — 98% glass — and a completely different product than the mixed trash resulting from glass processed through single stream recycling systems. "They're really not comparable," says Forbes.

MAP: The location of more than two dozen purple dumpsters included in Northern Virginia's glass recovery program. (Source: Fairfax County)

From the transfer station, glass is shipped to a facility in North Carolina, where it is further processed before being sold to other companies, including O-I Glass, whose two factories in Virginia produce 3.5 million bottles a day.

"There are very strong markets for recycled glass in this country, but it has to be a good quality of material," says Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, a national trade group based in Arlington. Because of its weight, glass is unlike other recyclables: it can't realistically be shipped overseas for processing or manufacturing.

DeFife says Virginia has historically had a low glass recycling rate. "National averages are in the 35% or so range for glass recycling, and Virginia was in the ten to fifteen percent range," says DeFife. "We know that there was something fundamentally wrong in the system."

DeFife says the new glass recycling system in Northern Virginia was based on a successful program in Kansas City, Mo. that was started by a local brewing company.

The glass crushing machine, located at Fairfax County's I-66 transfer station. Jacob Fenston/WAMU hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU

But — how realistic is it to ask people to drop off their glass recycling after years of the ease of curbside pickup? In Virginia, officials say they were surprised by how quickly residents started using the glass drop off sites. Since launching last year, the program has collected nearly 5 million pounds of glass, roughly 200,000 pounds per week. Eric Forbes notes that the network of list of drop off sites continues to grow, putting them closer to more residents.

"We try to set up the purple bins in locations throughout the community and region where you can go throughout your normal course of your day," says Forbes.

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