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Bottles going from recycling to trash; blame beer and China



Monitor staff
Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Changes in the beer industry that led a bottle factory to shut in Massachusetts, combined with China’s continuing crackdown on recycled materials, is starting to make it harder for New Hampshire to recycle glass containers.

“I hear anecdotally that communities who have been collecting glass separately as a recyclable have been stockpiling it and having trouble finding markets to get rid of it,” said Todd Moore, administrator of the state’s Solid Waste Management Bureau.

“We’re seeing contracts more and more that say: ‘We’ll pick up your single-stream (recycling), but no glass,’ ” said Michael Durfor, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, an industry group for recycling.

The situation with glass is reflective of financial pressure hitting all recycling programs as the price that waste paper, cardboard, tin, glass and other materials bring on the open market has fallen, mostly because China has gotten much pickier about the huge amount of recycled material it buys.

On average, only about 30 percent of the material collected by recycling systems can be sold these days, Durfor said.

“You can’t pay your staff and run your equipment on 30 percent of product,” he said.

“There is still good money to be made for source-separated material,” Durfor said. Clean cardboard can bring $100 a ton, some plastics $400 a ton and cans as much as $1,000 a ton.

“But you’ve got to have clean product and you’ve got to separate it out,” he said – a difficult and expensive process.

The situation with glass recycling came to public attention last week when the town of Hooksett announced it would no longer accept it as part of its recycling program.

“Glass has always been hard to find markets for, but with local glass disposal sites closing down, we have no markets at all,” said the announcement, which tells Hooksett residents to put any glass in the trash.

Hooksett’s problems were partly triggered by the abrupt closure earlier this year of a glass bottle manufacturing plant in Medford, Mass., caused by a decline in the sales of national beer brands in the face of the growth in craft beers.

The factory, owned by the Ardagh Group, annually bought some 2,000 tons of “cullet,” the industry term for old glass that can be made into new glass. Industry publication Waste Dive said the closure produced a “domino effect” throughout the Northeast because the factory was the largest customer of Strategic Materials, which takes recycled glass from communities throughout the region.

“That specific plant was the highest cullet user probably in the nation,” Laura Hennemann, Strategic Material’s director of marketing, told Waste Dive. Without the bottling plant, Strategic Materials had no customer for glass and has stopped taking it.

Many municipal recycling programs were established a decade or more ago, when China’s unending appetite for raw materials meant that virtually all recycled material could be sold for good money. Most programs use single-stream recycling, where consumers put all material into one curbside container, because it increases participation in the program.

However, separating material collected in a single stream is difficult and getting more expensive. The price to a town or city of getting rid of single-stream material has quadrupled in recent years to as much as $145 per ton, Durfor said.

Glass has long been a particular problem. When containers break, the pieces mingle with paper, plastic and tin in the recycling container, making it impossible to sell them as a clean product.

That’s part of the reason the city of Franklin became the first community in the region to ban glass from its curbside recycling pickup, clear back in 2016.

“We still recycle glass, but we collect it at the transfer station. We take it to New London, and they crush it. We’ve done, I think, 6 tons this year,” said Brian Sullivan, municipal service director for Franklin.

He said getting glass out of the recycling stream cuts the weight of recycled material, and therefore the cost of disposal, by as much as 20 percent.

New London is one of six sites that collect glass, which is then crushed by a mobile unit owned by the Northeast Resource Recovery Association. The crushed glass is used as aggregate under roadbeds, sidewalks and in other construction projects, part of a push to create markets for the recycled glass.

Tony Belanger, director of major accounts at Pinard Waste Management in Hooksett, said he has heard talk that trash processing plants, which mechanically separate various materials collected in single-stream recycling, are thinking of not allowing any glass at all in the collections, which would further crimp the ability to recycle it.

The situation has tightened in recent years because China, which has long purchased much of the world’s recyclable materials as part of its push to grow the economy, has stopped being so tolerant about taking material that has contaminants, an industry term for something other than the material being recycled.

Last year when the Chinese government imposed a very strict policy called National Sword, the price of recycled material containing any contaminants plunged, putting further pressure on recycling programs to separate glass from other materials.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)