The future of glass recycling in Prince William County was anything but clear in 2019 when residents could no longer place glass curbside for pickup. But just two years later, the “purple bin” drop-off program has crushed all expectations for glass recycling in the county.
In response to global changes in the recycling market, Prince William County removed glass from its curbside recycling program in 2019. It also asked the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to take the extraordinary step of formally removing glass from the list of materials required to be recycled in the county by ordinance.
In concert with those steps – and in an effort to keep glass collection alive – the county’s recycling office launched a pilot program to collect glass in separate containers at the Prince William County landfill and the Balls Ford Road composting facility.
Although limited to just two locations, the program quickly gained traction with county residents. In 2018, the county recycled or reused just 18 tons of glass. After implementing the drop-off bins, Prince William County reported an impressive 227 tons of glass collected and recycled in 2019.
In 2020, the county shattered that record with 537 tons of glass collected and recycled, according to Scott McDonald, manager of Prince William County Solid Waste Division recycling program.
MacDonald said he is absolutely delighted the purple bins are so popular with county residents and called the 137% year-over-year increase from 2019 to 2020 in glass recycled a sign the county is “heading in the right direction with our glass recycling program.”
The purple bins are among the busiest at the county’s recycling facilities and are active all day long, McDonald said.
To meet the program’s growing demand, the county deployed two more purple bins earlier this year, one at James Long Regional Park in Haymarket and one at the A.J. Ferlazzo building in Woodbridge.
McDonald said there has been an overwhelming response to the Long Park purple bin, which has been collecting over two tons of glass every week. McDonald said he hopes to add two more purple bins in the county before the end of the year.
The purple bins are designed with smaller round access holes that can accommodate glass bottles and jars while at the same time keeping out non-glass and other undesirable items. McDonald explained that this “source-separated” glass is much more easily recycled because it is not mixed with any other materials. In contrast, in the past when glass was still a part of single-stream recycling, it sometimes contained as much as 60% non-glass material due to contamination and thus was not recyclable.
Glass now being recycled, not just re-used
When the purple bins are full, the county empties them into a consolidation bunker located at the landfill. When the bunker contains about 25 tons of glass, the county calls Strategic Materials, the closest glass processor or “beneficiate.” Strategic sends a truck from North Carolina to pick up the glass and haul it back to its facility in North Carolina, McDonald said.
Strategic Materials color sorts the glass and cleans it to remove any impurities such as labels or bottle caps to get the glass as pure as possible. Then, the high-quality, “furnace-ready cullet” can be sold to container manufacturers and used without any loss in quality. Any lower quality glass can be sold for use in fiberglass insulation or sandblasting materials, McDonald said.
McDonald explained the county is “serious about recycling glass” with the ultimate goal of “seeing the glass go back to a similar use.”
According to McDonald, the county has been sending about two or three truckloads of glass to Strategic monthly but hopes that, with the additional two cans, it will increase to four to five loads a month.
The county pays Strategic about $5 per ton to transport the glass to the facility. According to McDonald that is a good investment to keep that glass tonnage out of the county landfill while at the same time returning the glass to commerce.
The Northern Virginia Solid Waste Management Board reported that in 2019 the Purple Can Club resulted in 1,993 tons of glass collected and recycled across the Northern Virginia region. In 2020, the NVWMB reported a whopping 5,526 tons of glass collected and recycled from purple bins across the region.
McDonald said that with those numbers increasing significantly and all localities in the region participating in the Purple Can Club, he hopes it might lure a glass beneficiate to Virginia or at least the Mid-Atlantic area.
“Glass is a super heavy material. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to haul glass five hours to the nearest facility in North Carolina or Pennsylvania,” said McDonald. “I don’t know what the magic number is for the industry, whether they need 20,000 or 30,000 tons. But at some point, I think it could be worth it to them to locate something in Virginia,” he added.
“I think that what we’re doing as a region is the right thing to do. I feel like for the first time in more than 20 years, there’s hope for the future of glass recycling in Virginia,” said McDonald.
Reach Cher Muzyk at email@example.com