We’ve been making glass, in some form, since 3500 B.C. Its durability is one of the reasons we know we’ve been making glass that long — a few of the shards are still around. Glass is a true ‘cradle-to-cradle’ product, as it can be endlessly recycled into the same high-quality product.
It’s durable, but it’s heavy and breakable. These qualities have led to packaging substitutions away from glass and toward lighter materials like plastic and aseptic containers (e.g. juice boxes). Fewer things packaged in glass mean recyclers have seen less and less glass being collected over the years. Even some of the basic containers that have always been made of glass, like wine bottles, are switching to aseptic containers.
Don’t lose hope, glass aficionados. Consumers view glass as high quality, environmentally friendly and healthy. Recent government actions against polycarbonate plastic baby bottles have caused a resurgence in the demand for their glass counterparts. Glassmaker O-I (formerly Owens-Illinois) has resumed making baby bottles after 20 years at its plant in Charlotte, Michigan.
Another trend toward increased glass use is in the organic food market. Consumers choosing organic options are very concerned about health and about environment. As a result, companies marketing to these consumers are choosing glass for their packaging. Glass is still considered ‘high quality’ and continues to be used for top end products. It is also used as a refillable container, mostly in the beer market.
The glass industry is working on ways to drop the weight of its containers while still maintaining their strength. A UK glass maker, working with the Britain’s Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP), has produced a 300g wine bottle (the average is 500g with the heaviest at 1.2kg) that is as tough as its heavier counterparts.
O-I (www.o-i.com) is always looking for sources of clean cullet (crushed glass), but the economics of recycling glass (it's heavy, and virgin alternatives are cheap and abundant) mean that the costs of shipping to them get prohibitive quickly.
Consequently, there is no real alternative for bottle-to-bottle glass recycling on the prairies. We have fewer options for glass here and struggle more with trying to recycle it. It’s a problem we have to work on with that good ‘ole prairie ingenuity.