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Blackbox Special Report

Glass recycling becoming dangerous, unprofitable

North Fulton cities ponder whether to continue service



NORTH FULTON, Ga. — Residents with a “green” mindset face the prospect of shelling out more of their own green to practice what they preach.

The future of glass recycling in North Fulton is at a crossroads, and both cities and residents could face higher bills for the service or see it vanish altogether.

Waste haulers and recycling companies have notified North Fulton cities that glass recycling is becoming more expensive and dangerous for their facilities. The glass, they say, has damaged machines and contaminated other recycling materials. As a result, many companies have discontinued the practice.

“Glass is just a really difficult product to handle for various reasons,” said Charlie Slade, a spokesperson for Advanced Disposal, which provides solid waste collection and recycling services in 18 states, including Georgia. “The glass becomes broken and crushed when it gets to the recycling center. You have issues where the shards of glass get mixed together with other materials. It really reduces the value of the other materials that glass gets into, like paper, and makes it difficult to market them.”

Those same shards of glass have been known to tear up rollers, wear out conveyor belts or hurt handlers, who sometimes separate glass by hand.

Even glass itself has become hard to market to recycling companies, because the different colors of glass mix together in the process.

“So what’s happened because it has become such a problem is that the industry of collection as a whole has said ‘we’re no longer going to accept glass in your recycling,’” Slade said.

Waste haulers that work with the City of Milton, for example, have stopped offering glass recycling altogether. The city has removed it from its list of recyclables while it explores other options for residents to continue recycling glass.

“This problem has been on the horizon for a while,” said Shannon Ferguson, Milton communications manager. “We’ve seen other cities and counties changing their agreements with their waste haulers based on what the waste haulers were willing to do. We anticipated that it was coming.”

The issue extends even beyond North Fulton.

“This is something we’re seeing across the state. And Georgia is not the only state where this is happening,” said James Drinkard, assistant city administrator for the City of Alpharetta. “So then it becomes a question of ‘well, what are you going to do?’”

Alpharetta is at a crossroads when it comes to the question of glass recycling.

In the past, all recyclable materials – such as paper, plastic, aluminum and glass – were collected at once in a “single stream” during curbside pickup. Collection trucks then compacted the materials and sent them to a materials recovery facility, where they were processed through machinery. The resulting recycled products are marketed to aluminum, paper, plastic and other companies.

Glass can still be recycled, just not as it currently exists in single-stream recycling. It would have to be separated before it reaches the facilities.

“The challenge is when you put all of the materials together,” Slade said. “It’s not so much that there isn’t an industry for glass recycling. There very much is.”

As such, Alpharetta’s City Council recently decided to collect public input before making a final decision on how to set up service. They will be rolling out a public education campaign at the end of February on the issue and present options for residents to vote on in early March.

Their first solution is one that many communities have opted for, which is to discontinue glass recycling and trash it instead. There would be no cost increase for residents, but it would increase landfill waste. The second option is to establish collection sites for glass-only. This would create a minimal cost that the city budget could absorb without impacting residents, Drinkard said.

The third option would be to issue separate containers for glass for curbside pickup, but it would tack on an extra $3 cost per month for each household.

While Alpharetta is still considering the options, the City of Roswell has come up with a unique solution that allows its residents to continue glass recycling.

At its Dec. 28, 2016 meeting, the Roswell City Council unanimously approved an amendment to the contract with its waste hauler, Advanced Disposal, to increase the fee for collections in order to continue curbside glass recycling. The city will pay $60,000 to continue the service for six months, starting January 2017. The added fee is being absorbed by the city’s Solid Waste Fund without being passed down to customers.

However, at a recent council work session, Finance Director Keith Lee estimated the Solid Waste Fund could only absorb the added cost for another few years before residents, or some other source, was tapped.

The increased fee helps cover the costs of maintenance for the equipment and the decreased value of other recyclable products mingled with the glass.

Advanced Disposal, in turn, has been using the crushed glass as roadbed material instead of buying new materials, such as gravel and crusher run. The glass collected from Roswell has been helping them build roads.

“It’s being repurposed for a higher and better use. It’s not just being thrown into a landfill,” Slade said.

When the current Roswell contract runs out in June, the city and waste hauler will once again sit down to revisit the terms and possibly explore new developments in recycling technology.

Slade has expressed hope that the rapidly changing industry technologies will make glass easier to process and reintroduce into single-stream curbside pickup.

“We as a company are confident that technology will developed that we can implement at our MRFs that will help alleviate some of these problems. And if it doesn’t, we’ll adjust,” Slade said. “But I do think that technology will come up that will help solve the issues that we’re dealing with as an industry.”

In the meantime, the Roswell Recycling Center is offering free glass recycling to anyone who brings glass to their facility at 11580 Maxwell Road, Alpharetta. At the center, staff sort all of the glass by hand, including by color. The result is high-quality glass recycling with very little contamination that the center gets paid to produce. All North Fulton residents are welcome to bring their glass there with no additional fee.

“We have seen a big jump in people bringing us glass. Some come from as far away as south Atlanta. People don’t want to throw it away,” said Janet Liberman, Roswell’s environmental programs manager and executive director of Keep Roswell Beautiful. “Glass is still extremely recyclable.”

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