Photograph by Steven Higgs
Glass from Bloomington and Monroe County recycling programs goes to Republic Services in Indianapolis, where it is stockpiled in heaps like these behind the facility's Assistant General Manager Mike Laverty. It is trucked to Chicago, where Laverty says the glass is remanufactured, mostly into glass or fiberglass.
That's the proportion of recyclables collected in Monroe County that actually get remanufactured into something useful, according to the No. 2 man at the Republic Waste Services recyclery in Indianapolis.
"Ninety-three percent of what comes in this plant is recovered and turned into some product that is recycled," said Assistant General Manager Mike Laverty.
Fourth in a series
Of that portion, roughly 20 percent is glass, he said. It's by far the costliest recyclable material to process and has no commercial value, at least not for an operation the size of his.
"It costs me money to ship my glass out," Laverty said. "I don't get paid for glass. It costs me money."
Republic Services is the nation's third-largest waste processor and owns Hoosier Disposal & Recycling, which processes every container or paper product that Bloomington citizens put on their curbs or Monroe County citizens take to county drop-off sites for recycling.
The Monroe County Solid Waste Management District sends all recyclables collected through its drop-off sites and Green Business Network to Hoosier for processing. The City of Bloomington likewise gives Hoosier all recyclables collected through its curbside program.
Because Monroe County recycles enough quantities of paper, metals and plastics that Hoosier can sell them directly to the market, the county sends Republic a disproportionate amount of glass, Laverty said.
"I get a lot of glass from Bloomington," he said.
From the moment 23-ton trucks deliver Bloomington's recyclables to Republic's facility on the near northwest side of Indianapolis, glass is treated like trash.
Vibrating conveyor belts shake the glass out of the mix as soon as it enters the recyclery. While the belt rattles and shakes, steel cans are pulled out by magnets, and lightweight plastic and aluminum cans are sucked up by "air classifiers," leaving only the heavy items on the belt.
"The heavy items should be only glass," Laverty said. When the initial separation is complete, the glass is dumped in "bunkers," three-sided concrete storage bins on the outside of the building.
When the bunkers get full, the glass is picked up and dumped into large piles in the middle of a field next to the building. At least once a day, sometimes two or three times, Republic workers dump the glass piles into trucks that take them to a recycler in Chicago.
"All this glass goes up to Chicago to Strategic Materials," Laverty said.
Strategic has a high-tech operation with sorters that decontaminate the glass, Laverty said. Optical sensors locate bottle cap rings or plastic lotion bottles on the conveyor belts, and these contaminants are mechanically removed.
The sorters similarly separate the remaining glass by color. Monroe County recyclers sort their glass by color at the Recycling Center on South Walnut Street, but, according to Laverty, it all gets mixed together at the Indianapolis recyclery.
"All this glass gets optically sorted in this state-of-the-art facility," he said. "And then the large pieces of glass, once they get it cleaned up, they turn it into new glass."
The "fines" -- dust and real small pieces of glass -- go through another cleaning process and are remanufactured into fiberglass insulation, he said.
"It is my understanding, from talking to Strategic, that 100 percent of the glass that goes into their facility is recovered and made into a product," Laverty said, "either new glass or fiberglass."
Laverty said he's been in the trash business since 1983 and the recycling side of the business since 1996, and he's never known recycling glass to be profitable for small processors like his Republic facility.
"We lose money in more ways than you can believe," he said. "It wears out equipment -- belts, conveyors, our floor, the tires on our equipment. It's a very abrasive item. It just chews everything up."
And once the glass is separated and ready for reprocessing, it's worth very little, Laverty added.
"Glass has never had enough value in it to ever pay for the separation and deflecting and processing," he said. "In the best-case scenario, for clean, clear glass, if you pulled it, at the very best, $40 a ton. That doesn't pay for the person pulling it out."
The Monroe County Solid Waste Management District pays Hoosier $41 per ton to haul away the glass collected at the Recycling Center and rural drop-off sites. The City of Bloomington pays Hoosier the same amount for glass mixed with plastics and cans.
Laverty insists the market has never been bad enough that the company has had to dump glass at its Sycamore Ridge Landfill east of Terre Haute. But that's not to say other options haven't been explored.
"We have tried other things when market was not as good," he said.
A couple years ago some glass did end up at Sycamore Ridge as a substitute for gravel in the sub-base for landfill roads. It "worked okay," Laverty said. But it's not an option the company has pursued.
An asphalt plant in Terre Haute has purchased and used glass to produce "glassphalt," he said. He's been told that it can be used to make brick.
One community in Republic's Indiana region -- Terre Haute -- has dropped glass from its recycling efforts.
"A lot of cities have opted out of glass," Laverty said.
He noted that Republic's Indianapolis recyclery is 10-12 years old and technologically behind the times.
"We have a lot of sorters who pull the fiber out by hand," he said. In recycling lingo, fiber means paper products, such as office paper, junk mail, newsprint, magazines and cardboard.
Republic runs two, nine-hour shifts a day, seven days a week, with workers literally pulling paper and other contaminants from the waste stream by hand at several points along the process.
The company is considering building a new facility that would be more state-of-the-art and reduce its costs for glass, Laverty said.
Recycling glass at the volume processed by Strategic Materials, the Chicago glass recycler, is profitable, Laverty said. And the fiber, metals and plastics are money-makers.
"A lot of cities have opted out of glass."
- Mike Laverty, Republic Services
So, even with the 7 percent contamination level overall -- "People throw trash away with their recyclables," Laverty said -- Republic processes glass in effect as a loss-leader.
"It's consumer-driven, I guess you might say," he said. "Everybody wants to recycle."
An important measure of success for recycling operations is the quantity processed, Laverty said.
"Volume is key," he said.
And with glass accounting for 20 percent of the total volume of recyclable materials, it's a critical component in the business model, Laverty said.
"People want to recycle glass, so we offer glass as an option," he said.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.