Piecing together the shattered economics of glass recycling

When it comes to recycling, I’m spoiled. I have single-stream, curbside recycling pickup at my house in Knoxville, Tennessee. When the city recently announced it would no longer accept glass in the curbside bin, I was more than a little disappointed.

Knoxville isn’t the only municipality to experience the fickle economics of glass recycling; municipalities around the U.S. have also ceased to include glass in single-stream pickup. Many municipal recyclers bemoan low demand for recycled glass, which is more expensive to recycle.

Meanwhile, glass processing companies and brands that actually incorporate recycled glass content in their products say they can’t get enough supply of the thing municipalities say there’s no demand for.

This supply-demand equation gets more complex when consumers are brought into the mix: the recycling rate for glass containers in the U.S. has hovered around 33 percent for at least a decade.

Aligning supply and demand

wrote a few weeks ago about Adidas and other big-name brands who are addressing plastic waste in innovative ways. That’s exciting and worthy news for the average consumer — people care about what those brands are doing and plastic pollution has a more nefarious reputation than glass.

But plastic isn’t the only recyclable material that can serve as an ingredient for another product. So who are the players working to create a more robust market for glass recycling? Last year, a diverse group of companies — ranging from brewing companies to fiberglass insulation manufacturers, waste disposal and recycling companies, even investment firms — came together to form the Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC). Its mission: “to make glass recycling work” by improving recycling processes and working with municipalities to build up markets.

Only a few names on the list rang a bell for me — mostly the brewers. One of those brands, Heineken, said in a press release, “The extraordinary aspect of the GRC is the fact that it involves membership and collaboration across the entire glass supply chain. For the first time ever, nearly two dozen organizations … will work together to make glass recycling an efficient, high-quality and convenient service that consumers want and expect.”

The collaboration between different levels of the supply chain is becoming more and more imperative to finding lasting solutions — ones that could take us further into a circular economy. We write a lot about the impact environmental reputation has on consumer purchase decisions. But even if your business isn’t in a category that’s front and center with consumers, it’s time to act. Sustainability is a very real driver for how consumers and business decision makers choose products — and the ripples have reached deep into the supply chain.

While the knots in the recycling processes are being untangled, what can we as marketers and communicators be doing?

  1. Talk to consumers. Municipalities that aren’t collecting enough glass to make the economics work should be marketing to consumers specifically about glass — not just recycling in general. Help folks see how they have a role in making glass recycling work. After all, according to last year’s Eco Pulse study, 45 percent of Americans say buying or using eco-friendly products is an important part of their personal image, and 76 percent feel at least moderately responsible to change their daily purchase habits and practices to help the environment. Tap into that!
  2. Market to B2B decision makers. If the suppliers are having a hard time finding you, go to them. Industries that need more recycled glass content need good old-fashioned B2B marketing aimed at recycling facilities and municipalities.
  3. For both consumer and B2B marketing, remember you’re talking to human beings — human beings who tend to feel guilty about wasting resources. Tell them about the high percentage of glass that goes to the landfill — according to Recycle Across America, “more than 28 billion glass bottles and jars end up in landfills every year — that is the equivalent of filling up two Empire State Buildings every three weeks.” They’ll get the point — it’s downright dumb to be throwing away an endlessly recyclable resource.

The new channels for dialogue and interaction within the glass supply chain and across industries make me optimistic that the setbacks for glass recycling in places like Knoxville will be temporary — and we’ll get supply and demand lined up soon.

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