Crushed Glass, Recycling, and the Global Market

It seems like such a simple thing—figure out what can be recycled, drop it in a bin or recycle can and have a truck come by and pick it up. Or more likely, drop the recycled items off at a recycling center.

Sure, the attendant there may say something along the lines of, “Hey. You’ve got to separate the glass out of the other stuff,” but for the most part it’s pretty easy to do. And it feels good…as though we have made some small gesture or played some small role in making the world a little greener.

But that small simple act is actually part of a surprisingly complex system that includes human behavior, international relations, money, and a lot of innovation.

Dare County crushes much of its glass. In many places crushed glass has become part of a vibrant market for the product. Mixed with concrete it adds an aesthetic quality and potentially some strength. Used as part of a paving mixture it helps to create a porous yet permanent surface. The uses are extraordinary and the market is vibrant. Locally, though, the glass is pretty much for domestic use.

“We’ve been doing it (crushing glass) for a while now,” Shanna Fullmer, Public Works Director, said. When the county first started crushing glass around ten years ago, there were concerns about whether the program would work. “We were thinking, what are we going to do with all this glass byproduct? We shouldn’t have worried. People were calling from all over,” Fullmer said.

Raw glass on the conveyor, on its way to being crushed.

“The crushed glass product, people are crazy for it,” she added. “Homeowners, they use it in flower beds. People have made candles with it. People have made stained glass with it. People also will use it in their driveways. It doesn’t make a good substitute for gravel, but it gives gravel a certain look. You can put it in your hands and it won’t cut you. You can walk barefoot across it.”

It’s a great service for Dare County property owners and businesses, but its greatest impact may be in how much money it saves the county.

Recycling is a market driven business and right now the price being paid for recycled goods is way down. The tipping fees, the cost to handle the recycled material, is way up.

The problem is china; not the country of China in this case, but what we’ve been sending to China.

China is the largest processor of recycled goods in the world. There was already, probably, too much product on the market, but what was coming from the US compounded that.

“China had been telling us for years to clean the stream up,” Fullmer explained. “‘What you’re sending us is trash mixed in with recycled goods.’ China finally told us we’re not taking anything else. So it created a glut of product inside of the country.”And that’s where the market really comes into play. “There has to be a market for whatever it is that you are trying to get rid of,” Fullmer said.

After recycling, the crushed glass provides a decorative mulch such as this surround for the Town Hall flagpole in Kill Devil Hills.

Kitty Hawk Public Works Director Willie Midgett has been with the town for 12 years and in that time he has witnessed firsthand how the market has shifted.

“With China not taking stuff, the demand has gone way down for recyclables. A lot of it is making its way back into the waste stream now. Plastic is not making any money. Metal is making money. Clean metal is making even better money. Cardboard is making money. Anything else is probably not,” he said.

One thing is certain…recycling is not going to go away. There is across the full span of our society, a willingness, and usually a commitment to recycling. The towns, counties and municipalities that provide that service, though, face a daunting task: how to control the cost.

“Dare County has two different fees when you’re looking at recycling,” Fullmer said. “You’re looking at the cost of transportation and you’re looking at the tipping fees when you get there. The tipping fees for recycled fees have gone through the roof. The tipping fees for trash is now about $12 less per ton than my tipping fee for recycling.”

Here’s where it starts to get a bit confusing. There seems to be an intersection of market forces and innovation on the Outer Banks.

There are basically two ways to handle recycled materials: single stream and sorted.

Single stream is where a recycle bin or can is on the property, all the recyclable goods go into it, a truck stops by and picks it up and takes it away. The huge advantage is its convenience. The disadvantage is everything goes into the container and single source recycling probably contributed to the Chinese complaints about the product. There is a cost savings on the front end with convenience and transportation, but there are additional costs later on. “On the collection end of it, and maybe even on the trucking end of it, you’re saving on your transportation fees,” Fullmer said. “Then on the back end you’re raising your tipping fee because somebody’s got to sort it. The single stream had a lot of good application but you have to follow that process all the way through.”

How to most effectively recycle material at the least possible cost has become a multi-pronged problem. The price of the goods has fallen because the largest buyer is no longer purchasing the product. Because the price has fallen, the tipping fees have risen. The short-term way to offset at least some of the rising cost is to reduce transportation costs.

And that’s where things get innovative.

NC State has created a Zero Waste program designed to educate the public.“NC State is doing a really good job of at trying to educate recyclers. We’re trying to get back to the basics,” Fullmer said. “Clean up the recycle stream and then the market will open up.”

Cleaning up the recycle stream is something every town on the Outer Banks is aware of.

“Currently, we are focusing on keeping contaminants out of our recycling stream so that we continue to have high quality recyclables,” Roberta Thuman Nags Head Public Information Officer said.

And that brings the discussion back to the crushed glass. Well…the glass and couple of ideas.

Glass is one of the heaviest of all recyclable items. Eliminating that, by itself, reduces the tipping fees.

There is another step the county has taken finding a way to compress the recycled material. “We obtained two compactors with a state grant. One is here on site and one in Kitty Hawk and transportation costs have been cut in half,” Fullmer said.

“As far as dumping goes, it’s made a huge difference,” Midgett said. “Now we dump about once a quarter instead of once a week. That’s a huge savings just in time for the gas and driver.”

When the compactors showed up back in July the impact was immediate—or immediate for anyone bringing recycled goods to either Kitty Hawk or the Dare County recycling center on Driftwood Drive on Roanoke Island.

“There’s no glass in that,” was a typical instruction. Followed by, “You can’t put glass in the compactor.” The attendant would then point to a separate bin and indicate that’s where the glass was supposed to go.

What has happened is the recycled product is cleaner and it is having an effect.

“Right now Dare County pays $85 per ton to get rid of co-mingled plastic and steel cans and aluminum cans. The county is in better shape than some because we have adhered to the single stream at the collection centers,” Fullmer said.

It is remarkable how many items go into that recycle stream. Cardboard has long been known as a very recyclable item, and according to Fulmer, selling the cardboard helps to offset tipping fees of recyclables. The price, however, has been falling.

“I have seen a drop in the price. We were getting  $190 per ton. It’s dropped to $60 a ton,” she said.

Most recycling centers take large bulk items as well—things like refrigerators or stoves.

“It’s white goods. We sell it to a recycling place. It’s not a lot, but it is enough to pay for the driver’s time,” Midgett said.

There is a saying, “Act locally; think globally.” We may not consciously be thinking that way, yet the ultimate effect may be the same. The effect of action locally will eventually change what happens on a much larger scale.”

“The hope is clean up the stream, present a better product going to market, and hopefully the big dogs that are into buying large quantities of this product are into this market again,” Fullmer said. ♦

Recycling Center Locations

For both county and town recycling centers, hours of operation, and description of what each accepts, visit: darenc.com/departments/public-works/recycling

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