For the environmentally minded, glass poses a disposal dilemma in Coastal Georgia. Throw it in the curbside recycling in Savannah, for example, and it goes to a landfill. But a Beaufort-based company is offering a new solution for the Hostess City that has the potential to spread down the coast. Last month Savannah signed a contract with Glasswrx to collect and re-use residents’ discarded glass, and the company is hungry for glass from the entire Georgia coast.
“I need all the glass out of South Carolina and part of Georgia,” said co-founder and general manager Chris Fisher. “I’m going into Brunswick, Georgia, and bringing all that out.”
Savannah agreed to pay $104,000 to Glasswrx to pick up and re-use glass from a dozen roll-off containers the company will place around the city for drop off. The company will start its pickups around early September, after a month’s worth of resident education on the new scheme.
That education is necessary, because it hasn’t always been this way. Decisions made halfway around the world in 2018 changed our recycling habits and needs. That’s when China began refusing all but “99.5% pure” recyclables, those free of contaminants like greasy pizza boxes and plastic bags.
“Long story short, American markets cannot achieve that,” said Gene Prevatt, Savannah’s chief officer for government operations and unofficial garbage guru. “And so in 2018 that market collapsed, and that was all left here in America.”
While most American glass was never sent to China — it’s too heavy and there are domestic markets for glass recycling — the decision still hurt glass recycling here, said Laura Hennemann, senior vice president for sustainability & corporate affairs at Strategic Materials Inc., a major source of recycled glass for manufacturers of fiberglass insulation and food and beverage containers.
Future Glass Collection Locations in Savannah (Expected to begin Oct. 1, 2022)
- Bacon Park Transfer Station, 6400 Skidaway Road
- Barnes Restaurant, 5320 Waters Ave.
- Savannah Hilton Head Airport, 400 Airways Ave.
- Capital Street Fire Station, 2235 Capital St.
- Congregation Agudath Achim, 9 Lee Blvd.
- Dean Forest Landfill, 1327 Dean Forest Road
- Coffee Bluff Fire Station, 13710 Coffee Bluff Road
Current Glass Collection Locations in Brunswick
- 100 Recycle Way
- City of Brunswick Transfer Station, 5032 Habersham St.
- 550 Young Lane
“The problem is, when that happened with the other materials in the stream, it was a cost, Hennemann said. “It was hard to find outlets for those materials. So cities were looking at, ‘how can I save money? I didn’t budget for this.’ And then glass gets cut from programs as a kind of a red herring for cost savings.”
Savannahians dutifully continued putting their wine and beer bottles and pickle and jelly jars in the yellow-topped curbside recycle bins along with plastics, paper, cardboard and aluminum. But instead of being recycled, the glass went to a landfill. Pratt Industries, which contracts with the city to receive the recyclables, is mainly a paper and cardboard company. It had no internal market glass.
Nevertheless, Pratt honored the last two years of its original decade-long contract, begun in 2009 with Savannah, and continued to pay the city $15 a ton for the mixed recyclables. In 2019, Savannah signed a new contract with Pratt, agreeing to pay the company $696,000 a year for accepting its recyclables. That works out to the city paying about $100 per ton.
City officials decided to leave glass in the list of accepted recyclables even though Pratt has no obligation to recycle it and has been landfilling glass at a private landfill since at least 2019.
It was a long-range strategy, Prevatt said.
“We wanted to avoid dropping glass and installing glass all over again,” Prevatt said. “We don’t want to whipsaw people around.”
Enter Glasswrx, which collects glass and mills it at high temperature. The resulting gray rocks resemble pumice and are so lightweight they float.
“It can be used for air or water filtration. It can also be used as an aggregate for lightweight concrete,” Prevatt told the mayor and city council, who each received a sample synthetic rock, or “engineered cellular magmatics,” as they’re more technically called.
Glasswrx was the only respondent after the city posted a request for proposals earlier this year. The contract includes four available annual renewal options.
Alderman Nick Palumbo has toured the Beaufort facility and is enthusiastic about the city again finding a market for glass.
“The products that we consume today are made into the sidewalks, the water filtration medium, the sea walls of tomorrow, that can be consumed and placed right back here in Savannah,” Palumbo said at council.
The city agreed to pay Glasswrx $104,448. The company will provide 12 roll-off containers at existing disposal sites (i.e. Bacon Park, Dean Forest Road Landfill) and recycling drop-off centers in various locations throughout the Savannah.
As in Savannah, there’s an effort in New Orleans to produce building or landscaping materials out of glass. There, the company Glass Half Full independently collects glass with drop-off and pick-up programs for community members. They pulverize about 35,000 pounds of glass per week to create five different textures of sand and gravel, which they sell in individual and wholesale orders. Their ultimate goal is to use the sand in coastal restoration efforts — the company has partnered with the Pointe Au Chien Indigenous Tribe, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, and US Wildlife and Fisheries on two restoration projects thus far. The project remains non-governmental, although Founder and Co-Director Franziska Trautmann says they would be open to working with the city in the future.
These efforts aren’t exactly recycling, in the strictest definition of the word, Hennemann said. She explained “the hierarchy of glass:”
“Refillable programs are the highest and best use because you’re not making new, you’re reducing. And then recycling, then beneficial use, and then landfill. It just depends on how people define beneficial use. Some of the applications that Glasswrx was talking about are great. And probably better than landfill or no outlet. But it is end of life applications.”
Recycling glass in Georgia
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only about 25% or 3,060,000 tons of the 12,250,000 tons of glass containers used by consumers in the U.S. was recycled in 2018, the most recent year for which data was available. And after growing gradually since the 1960s, the amount of glass being recycled pretty much stagnated over the last decade.
Glass is inert. It’s made basically of sand so it doesn’t contaminate the land or sea the way plastics do. The biggest benefit of recycling comes not from avoiding pollution but from saving energy.
“Recycled glass will displace virgin material like sand that has to be mined,” Hennemann said. “And it’s virgin and it’s been sent in from other locations. It’s not necessarily your beach sand off the coast. Glass melts at a lower temperature than that virgin sand. And so that results in a carbon dioxide emission savings, energy savings.”
The EPA puts the energy savings at 30%. Put another way, the energy saved from recycling one glass bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours, according to the EPA.
Glass is infinitely recyclable.
“It’s one bottle in one bottle out forever,” Hennemann said. “It doesn’t degrade like plastics or something like that.”
Few municipalities in Georgia offer curbside recycling for glass. Decatur does, though residents are required to separate glass from other recyclables like plastic, paper and aluminum. Alpharetta did, too, until last month when the city council voted to discontinue the service.
But there’s a thriving market for recycled glass in inland Georgia.
Hennemann’s company, Strategic Materials Inc., acts as a middleman in the Georgia glass industry. It processes glass from recycling programs removing contamination and meeting the specification for customers, a handful of large manufacturers in Georgia.
Most of the contamination is non-recyclable materials, Hennemann explained.
“When when you talk clean glass, it’s not necessarily the organics they’re removing, you know, a little bit of peanut butter from your jar or anything like that,” she said. “It’s more of the non-recyclable material. So that can be your fast food toys and hangers, straws, things like batteries, all that comes in the glass pile. Usually anything smaller than your fist will end up in the glass pile.”
About 60% of the glass SMI processes goes toward fiberglass production and 40% is made back into glass containers.
Henneman calls Georgia a perfect hotspot for glass and glass recycling because of the state’s warm weather, areas of population density, and good nightlife.
Her company processes about 10,000 tons of glass a month and needs more.
“We actually bring glass in from your surrounding states to try to meet our demand in Atlanta,” she said. ” Because we can’t get enough from Georgians. So we’re working very hard to be 100% Georgia-sourced.”
Fisher is already reaching beyond Savannah into the rest of Coastal Georgia for more glass. After signing on with Savannah, he met with Chatham County officials. Surrounding counties are also interested, he said, as are Republic Services and Atlantic Waste Services, reaching as far south as Brunswick, where three glass collection sites are already set up.
Sonia Chajet Wides contributed to this report.