By Raymond Monasterski and Curtiss Telfer

Glass bottles and jars in the city of Lexington are no longer headed for re-purposing. Instead, they are heading to the landfill.

But Auto Recyclers of Buena Vista, which once handled Lexington’s recycling and solid waste collection, said it still welcomes used glass — from anyone.

“NOW buying all your recyclables and we still accept GLASS,” announced a company advertisement in the Nov. 5 News-Gazette.

Lexington’s policy change emerged Oct. 13, when the city asked residents and businesses to stop including glass with other recyclables such as plastic, paper and aluminum.

A shrinking market

“The glass recycling market has been declining,” said Lexington Director of Public Works Michael Kennedy. “It’s a trend going back to about 2006 or 2007. The market today remains very limited.”

About a year ago, said Kennedy, the city started transporting its recyclables to Sonoco, a packaging company with a recycling center in Fishersville, where the materials are directly re-purposed for use in Sonoco products like Tide detergent bottles.

But glass isn’t one of the materials.

“They did not accept the glass because they don’t use it,” said Kennedy, “so in essence the glass becomes waste and goes to the landfill.”

In the Oct. 13 public notice, the city requested residents and businesses to dispose of glass with all other household waste.  When broken glass is mixed with other recyclables, the city said, the load becomes contaminated and is unsafe to handle.

Added costs and risks associated with glass recycling include damage to machinery throughout collection, transport and sorting processes, said Sonoco commercial export manager Robert Tucker.

“The industry spends millions dealing with it,” he said.

Tucker has more than 20 years’ experience in the recycling industry with companies such as Bowater, MeadWestvaco, Reparco USA, and now Sonoco.

“To be a good steward of resources, when we spend money as a community to collect recyclables, they must have market value,” said Tucker.

The value of other recycled materials would increase, said Tucker, if municipalities excluded glass in the collection process.

“Glass collection cannot normally support itself,” he said.

Instead, he said, glass is an accessory in a market dominated by paper, aluminum and plastics.

Dispute on demand

The owner of Auto Recyclers of Buena Vista, though, said there is plenty of demand for used glass if it’s not being made into new glass.

Paul Palma said his company doesn’t encounter the problems Sonoco does because it simply pulverizes glass to create a substitute for mulch, which it offers for sale.

Used glass can also be used to make fiberglass insulation, he said, but that’s not a cost-effective option in Rockbridge County because there are no Owens Corning plants nearby.  Owens Corning is a leading insulation manufacturer.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 87 million tons of waste were recycled in 2012, but glass represented only 4 percent of the recycled material.

Lexington produces about 2,400 tons of recycled materials a year, Kennedy said, but glass accounts for only 13-14 tons. Sonoco pays the city $5,000 to $6,000 a year for recyclables, a figure that could increase if the company didn’t need to take glass to a landfill.

Meanwhile, the city pays $60,000 to $70,000 a year in tipping fees at the county landfill, an expense that would be relatively unchanged if glass were included with the rest of the city’s solid waste.

“If you add it all up, from a cost and economic standpoint,” said Kennedy, “it just makes sense right now.”

County rejects recycling restrictions

Rockbridge County also accepts glass as recyclables, said Kennedy, and sends the glass to its vendor, Auto Recyclers.

But the county does not allow city residents to take their waste to county recycling centers, said Tracy Shafer, Rockbridge County’s solid waste and recycling coordinator. Shafer said she’s received dozens of calls over the past few days from area residents wanting to confirm that the county is still taking glass recyclables.

Kennedy said Lexington might reconsider its no-glass decision in the future if the market changes, and if Sonoco then decides to accept glass recyclables.

For now, he said, the city, which began its curbside recycling program in 2009, will continue to take its unsorted recyclables to Sonoco.

While the city is curbing glass in its recycling program, Kennedy said he is optimistic about the city’s relationship with Sonoco and continued participation in curbside recycling.  He hopes residents and businesses will stop mixing glass with other recyclables  to reduce contamination.

“The demand for the glass recycling market is limited,” he said, “…but the city strongly encourages recycling, and there is plenty of recycling availability.”

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