What happens to our waste? Where does our glass go?

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

A couple of videos/blog posts ago, I talked about plastic and where it ends up after we put it in our recycling bins. You can check that out here, but today, we are going to be talking about glass. As much as we all think plastic is our only problem, I was curious myself to see if this is actually true or if it is all materials that are equally as damaging to the planet. Is glass really as sustainable as we think it is?

If you'd rather watch the video version, you can find it here:

First, I learned this recently from one of my favorite YouTubers, Gittemary Johansen, and from my good friend Sarah on Instagram that glass, if not recycled, takes thousands of years to decompose. They both have great content on this topic, but to keep it brief, glass is no better than plastic unless it can be recycled. Unlike plastic, glass can be recycled an infinite amount of time. This is good news, right?

Yes and no.

Yes, because recycling glass is a lot less wasteful than creating virgin glass. It reduces air pollution and water pollution as well as opposed to creating a new product. Of course, it reduces space in landfills and won’t take thousands of years to decompose. In fact, recycled glass is almost always used in the process of making new glass.

No, because glass is often a single-use item as well and if not recycled, still takes 1000+ years to decompose. Americans dispose of about 10 million metric tons of glass every year and most of it (67% to be exact) still ends up in the trash. But why is this the case if glass is so easily recyclable and less wasteful to recycle?

Quite honestly, a lot of it boils down to three main issues:

  1. Lack of government recycling policies

  2. Lack of customer education and willingness to do so

  3. And, just like with plastic, because it is contaminated.

The number one thing we can do as consumers to make sure our recycling has the best chance of being recycled is to make sure it’s clean. Contaminated recyclables are unable to be used and the entire bag or bin will probably just end up in landfill.

And another similarity to plastic is that the recycling process is hefty. Sure, there are many more benefits to recycling glass than recycling plastic, but it’s still a lot of work, time, and effort. Getting recycled glass ready for reuse takes a lot of processing which is also done inefficiently in the US.

Transporting glass waste can be expensive and wasteful too due to the weight. These costs can then be a dealbreaker for glassmakers. This cost plus the cost of actually recycling it might cost the same or even more than just making virgin glass, the same issue we see with plastic. \

Something that local recycling facilities have done and will probably continue to do is “bottle bills.” This is an incentive program that gives customers a bit of money back for each bottle returned. States with this program see a 98% recycling rate while states without such programs see a 33% recycling rate of glass. Though, this still remains an issue. The legislation is up to the states, not the whole nation. Unlike many European countries that have national legislation and not local.

Recycling is still not the norm in the US. Our culture is a throw-away culture. Even when recycling is presented, many people still toss glass and plastic and aluminum in the bin. Even in households and communities that DO recycle, that still should be the very last thought. Like I say frequently, think about what you can do with an item prior to recycling or throwing away. Can you upcycle or repurpose it, can you turn it into a reusable container. There is so much you can do especially with glass before putting it into the trash OR recycling. Recycling is great, but it is not perfect, so it should still be a last resort.

You still might be wondering, is it all handled domestically? In the case of the US, almost all glass is handled domestically. Noticed, I said handled and not recycled. Due to the weight to ship it and it’s fragility, glass is almost never shipped overseas. That’s good, right? We don’t want other people to deal with our waste, right?

While that is true, it is unfortunately STILL not recycled, even when handled locally. The majority of the market for recycling materials is overseas. It is expensive to recycle domestically and because it is so cheap to just make virgin glass, why should we even recycle it anyway.

Both outcomes, whether shipping it overseas or going to landfill, are unfortunate. While, yes, glass is a natural product (unlike plastic) and has a great recycling lifecycle (also unlike plastic) is still takes thousands of years for it to break down naturally (just like plastic).

So, now that we know where both materials go, which is better to purchase?

This is tricky and one could easily argue both ways. I’d like to dive deeper into this in the future, which material is truly the “best” to purchase, but the short answer is, single-use items, no matter the material, no matter if they are intended to be recycled or thrown out, are not good. I think you should avoid most single-use items if possible.

If you had to choose between the two, I think glass is the way to go, and here’s why. Plastic’s recycling rate is much lower. When plastic ends up in the ocean, it turns into microplastics which never ever disappear. Even though glass takes just as long to break down, at least it is a more natural material. Lastly, glass is much easier to reuse as jars and such.

Though, on the flip side, plastic is lighter and easier to ship and almost never breaks. And this is why it can go both ways. I encourage you to do your own research and make your best-educated guesses based on the recycling rates in your region.

I hope you learned something from today's message. Let me know down below which you would chose personally: plastic or glass.

Again, here is the video version:

Emma :)

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Hey there! Thanks for stopping by! 

My name is Emma. I am a 20-year-old new to this sustainable lifestyle. I am here to give you my tips as I learn them and help beginners begin their sustainable life...