What Really Happens to All Those Empty Bottles


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As our blogger Kim has shown, there are a ton of different things you can make with your empty wine bottles, from ring holders to solar lights, and we love seeing bottles upcycled.

But we know not everyone has the DIY itch, and we’ve always taken comfort in the assumption that the vast majority of empties were at least being recycled.

Apparently and amazingly, that was wishful thinking.

According to the Glass Packaging Institute, barely a third of all wine and liquor bottles are recovered and used in newly manufactured glass in the United States. Can you believe that? The statistics on beer and soft drink bottles are only a little better, and other types of bottles fare worse. Overall, we Americans suck at recycling glass, no two ways about.

glass recycling rates by country

It’s a shame, because glass containers are 100 percent recyclable – as long as they’re kept separate from non-food or beverage glass. That’s another thing we didn’t know: “Other kinds of glass, like windows, ovenware, Pyrex, crystal, etc. are manufactured through a different process,” the glass folks say. “If these materials are introduced into the glass container manufacturing process, they can cause production problems and defective containers.”

The good container glass can be crushed into what’s called cullet, and for every 10 percent addition of cullet into the glass-making batch, the energy cost of manufacturing new bottles drops 2-3 percent.

How to Do Better?

Experts say that glass recycling rates would be higher if more states had container refund programs (only 10 do now), and if more of them covered a broader range of containers (only some of the existing programs include wine bottles). A Department of Energy study said that “container recycling refund programs yield 80 percent recovery among covered containers.”

Recycling advocates believe these programs would be especially helpful in places that have adopted single-stream collection of recycling. Single-stream is when folks are allowed to put all their recycling – paper, plastic, metal and glass – into one container that they can wheel or tote out to the street. Combining single-stream with container refunds is important because while single-stream does boost recycling, 40 percent of single-stream glass ends up so broken down or contaminated, it can’t be recovered.

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Then what happens to this subpar glass?

Much of it is “down-cycled,” put to use in a landfill as a cover material, which is better than nothing, but doesn’t deliver nearly the same benefits in energy conservation or avoided emissions as recycling.

Tough Economics

There’s another obstacle to recycling glass: It’s heavy stuff, making it costly to transport.

Experts say that in addition to keeping trash and glass separate, the economics of recycling would improve if people separated their empties by color. “Glass manufacturers are limited in the amount of mixed color-cullet (called “3 mix”) they can use to manufacture new containers,” the Glass Packaging Institute says. “Separating recycled container glass by color allows the industry to ensure that new bottles match the color standards required by glass container customers.”

Of course, given the low recycling rates already, asking people to go the extra step and separate their bottles by color is probably (unfortunately) unrealistic.

Still, throwing perfectly recyclable bottles away is hardly a sustainable option.

According to Stanford University, 5 percent of U.S. garbage is glass. “It’s a shame if any glass container uses up landfill space,” the university said, “because glass lasts forever.” OK, forever might be an overstatement, but we tracked down a credible claim of 1,000,000 years.

It’s a reminder that the three R’s still rule when it comes to being sustainable: First comes reduce, next reuse, then – as a last resort – recycle. And of course, upcycling – using your ingenuity to add value to the empty bottle – is as good if not better than reusing.

Ready to upcycle? Check out these ideas on how to put your empties to good use:

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