Where now for glass?

While glass recycling levels soared to an all-time high last year, future growth may prove trickier, reports Rebecca Cocking

Glass recycling hit record levels in 2005, exceeding 50% of glass in the waste stream for the first time. Recycled glass used to make new containers increased by 67,000 tonnes to an all-time high of 742,000. This means UK manufactured bottles and jars contained an average of 35.5% recycled glass.

The British Glass Manufacturers’ Confederation calculates that an additional 250,000 tonnes of recycled glass was exported to EU container-makers, and that alternative markets such as aggregates consumed a further 280,000 tonnes. This growth trend is reflected in recycling figures nationally.

According to DEFRA, local authorities in England recycled and composted nearly 23% of waste in 2004-5, which means they are on course to reach the 25% target for 2005-6. Overall recycling and composting figures for LAs in Wales reached 19.4% and in Scotland 17.3%.

LA recycling officers may be justifiably pleased so far, but future growth could be hindered: the rise in kerbside collection of mixed glass is reducing the amount of glass that can be recycled back into bottles and jars, because of the high reprocessing costs of colour separation.

LATS may hinder packaging targets

In addition, the landfill allowance trading scheme (LATS) means that the future focus of LAs will be on the diversion and processing of biodegradable wastes. The glass, paper, steel, aluminium and plastics industries are concerned that, as a result, they might miss EU Packaging Waste Directive recycling targets due to a lack of future collection of the key packaging materials.

The directive sets the UK a 60% recycling target for overall waste and a 60% target for recycling glass to be achieved by December 2008. To meet this target, glass recycling in the UK must expand every year by around 160,000 tonnes until 2008. Glass collections from UK households will need to almost double from 27kg per household (kg/HH) in 2003-4 to 50kg/HH by 2007-8, according to figures from Valpak’s 2005 Packflow Report.

Yet attaining these levels of collection is compromised by factors unique to the UK glass recycling market. Firstly, the UK is a net importer of glass packaging while most other major European countries are net exporters. Secondly, we produce mostly clear glass while most European countries produce much more green. Thirdly our collection infrastructure is significantly different.

The majority of glass packaging produced in the UK is clear, and high levels of clear glass are exported, mostly as filled whisky bottles. And while there are high imports of green glass into the UK, mainly in the form of filled wine bottles, green glass production here is limited. The result is a shortage of clear glass for recycling and more green glass than container-makers alone can recycle.

Colour-separated collection is key

Growth in UK glass recycling has traditionally been held back due to this colour imbalance, which is why colour-separated collection is so important. Financially it makes sense to LAs too, as reprocessers will pay £30 per tonne for clear glass compared to £10 per tonne for green or mixed. This extra income can help to fund improved collection schemes.

The growth of mixed glass collection has exacerbated the existing colour imbalance. When mixed glass is colour-separated, three tonnes of extra green arise for every tonne of additional clear. While the container sector could absorb much higher glass tonnage, this could only come about through greater tonnage of clear and brown glass.

Lastly, a crucial aspect of continued growth in UK glass recycling is the expansion of existing markets and the development of higher-value alternative markets.

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