When metro Atlanta residents set glass bottles in curbside recycling bins, they think they’ve done their part to clean up the environment.
Instead, those glass products frequently wind up in the dump. While piles of boxes left over from the holidays can be reused, glass gets trashed.
Used glass containers have become a victim of efforts to make recycling easier for residents.
In recent years, cities and counties have encouraged residents to combine all their recycled materials in one bin, which has increased the cost of sorting materials. Rather than go to the trouble of separating glass from other materials, recycling companies have decided it’s less expensive to ship glass-filled debris to area landfills.
Some recycling companies treat glass like garbage because it can slash more valuable recyclables like cardboard and paper. Shards can also damage recycling machinery or pose an injury risk to workers.
Every county in the core Atlanta area works with companies that reject glass from their recycling streams.
Meanwhile, government officials and environmentalists said they’re wary of telling residents not to recycle glass. They don’t want to send a mixed message after years of efforts to simplify recycling by allowing residents to combine their materials.
Carol Lambert, a recently retired public utility conservationist, said she got irritated after she called DeKalb's recycling company and found out that her efforts to recycle glass were in vain, even as DeKalb's website still says residents should place glass with other recyclable materials.
“The county should have let people know that they really don’t need to be doing any of this. They didn’t need to be saving the glass at all,” said Lambert, who lives in Tucker. “I think a lot of people have come around to doing some sort of recycling, but I don’t like the deception.”
Most glass picked up from houses in DeKalb and Cobb counties is sent to landfills. Gwinnett works with five different haulers that often drop off recycling materials at facilities that don't process glass. Fulton leaves recycling to its city governments, and those living in unincorporated neighborhoods individually contract with recycling providers. The city of Atlanta's recycling hauler's facility rejects glass as well.
"Glass is considered a contaminant," said Jeff Lipscomb, who works in sales for Pratt Industries, which contracts with DeKalb for residential recycling. "It's of no use to us because it would damage our equipment."
Pratt Industries stopped accepting glass when its Conyers facility opened in September, Lipscomb said. The new plant handles plastic, aluminum, metal cans, paper and cardboard.
Glass can still be recycled by dropping it off at several locations across metro Atlanta. The problem is with curbside residential recycling pickup.
Recycling companies could decide to resume accepting glass if prices go up. But in the last few years, the glass market has been suppressed by the strong dollar and decreased exports, among other factors.
"If we start cherry-picking what we recycle and then the market turns around, it would be confusing to the customers," said DeKalb Sanitation Division Director Billy Malone. "We provide the material to the vendor, which includes glass. How they choose to process it depends on their business model."
DeKalb’s recycling contract generates about $250,000 for the county annually, though it has reached as high as $1 million in the past, Malone said.
Glass is still recycled in metro Atlanta, even though less of it is coming from residents. A College Park facility run by Strategic Materials processes between 250 tons and 300 tons of mixed glass and garbage daily from across the southeast, much of it trucked in from surrounding states. The plant sorts, cleans and refines the materials, creating a sand-like product that’s sold for use as insulation.
Over the last five years, the quality of glass materials has decreased because many areas have told residents to mix glass with other recyclable materials, said Curt Bucey, an executive vice president for Strategic Materials. Glass used to make up 85 percent of raw materials received by the company; today haulers deliver loads that are at times little more than half glass.
“The frequency of really bad loads has drastically increased,” Bucey said. “It’s not that the market got worse, but it’s the quality that got worse.”
The Atlanta region isn't alone in trashing glass. Nationwide, glass has become less desirable compared to other recyclable materials, said Gloria Hardegree, executive director for the Georgia Recycling Coalition.
“Keeping residents motivated to participate and recycle what is correct isn’t an easy task in this fluctuating, changing environment we’re living in now,” Hardegree said. “We’re just going through an unfortunate scenario right now. I think things are going to improve.”
In the meantime, the focus is on two of the three Rs: Reduce and reuse before you recycle, said Colleen Kiernan, director for Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.
The glass recycling environment may get worse before it gets better.
Waste Management, a national disposal and environmental services company, is warning that market conditions “ultimately could make glass recycling obsolete,” said Marla Prince, a spokeswoman for the company.
Waste Management is continuing to collect glass from jurisdictions in the Atlanta area and haul them to recycling facilities run by Pratt Industries and WestRock — both of which landfill glass rather than recycle it.
All loads of residential recycling materials in Cobb County will soon need to be free of glass, said county spokeswoman Sheri Kell. Cobb contracts with WestRock as its recycling provider, which hasn’t processed glass since July 2014.
“With no other options for reuse, the mixed glass … has been and continues to be landfilled,” Kell said.