EAST WENATCHEE — Glass recycling may be a thing of the past for East Wenatchee residents come 2022.
The city would be one of the last municipalities in the area to discontinue glass from its list of approved recyclables as Eastern and Central Washington — along with the rest of the country — see a decline in demand for recycled glass.
The change to East Wenatchee’s recycling list was proposed by Waste Management (WM) during contract renegotiations between the company and the city, according to East Wenatchee City Attorney Devin Poulson.
“Everything right now is just proposals,” Poulson said, adding that the current contract will expire at the end of 2021.
John Michel, a retired East Wenatchee resident who has been recycling for the 22 years he’s lived in the area, said the decision to not accept glass for recycling would be a shame.
“It makes no sense to throw something in the dump when it can be recycled or reused,” he said. “I hope they do change their minds and I hope it doesn't come to pass because once something goes in the landfill, it's there for good.”
WM Communications Manager Gary Chittim said the company recommended recycling list updates — including removing glass as an acceptable recyclable — to all its municipal partners in Central Washington in 2018 and has since been working to get those updates approved. The Washington Association of Counties Solid Waste Managers also recommended removing glass from the list of core recyclables.
Unincorporated areas of Chelan and Douglas counties, Wenatchee, Rock Island, Cashmere and Leavenworth — which all contract with WM — do not accept glass in their recycling bins, nor does Central Washington Recycling, a drop-off recycling plant with locations in Wenatchee and Yakima. Waterville, which offers its own recycling services, does accept glass.
Chittim said glass is no longer accepted in residential and commercial recycling for most of Central and Eastern Washington because there is currently no glass remanufacturer in the area. He said the closest glass remanufacturer is 6 hours away, which would result in significant environmental and monetary costs to transport a heavy material this distance.
“Glass is now considered a marginal recyclable material because there's no stable, long-term demand for glass from Central and Eastern Washington,” Chittim said. “We know people hate to toss out glass, and some will unfortunately continue to put it in recycle carts.”
The bigger picture
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 31.3% of glass was recycled in 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available). That same year, landfills received 7.6 million tons of glass, which made up 5.2% of landfill waste. Once in a landfill, glass jars and bottles take about 1 million years to break down. Plastics, in contrast, take 100 to 400 years.
Glass is an ideal recyclable material for both manufacturers and consumers, according to commercial recycling company RoadRunner: it’s infinitely recyclable, the process of glass recycling is environmentally friendly and glass recycling symbols are more straightforward compared to plastic ones. In fact, all jars and bottles used for everyday foods and drinks can be recycled.
Despite these characteristics, glass has been an ongoing challenge for recyclers across the U.S., according to Chittim, the WM communications manager.
For one, it’s heavy and expensive to collect, process and transport, said Chittim. There is also a decrease in demand due to abundant and inexpensive raw resources, low energy rates and increased usage of plastic and aluminum.
Glass can pose additional challenges to single-stream recycling programs, like WM ones locally. These types of programs collect multiple items at once and sort them later on. Since glass breaks easily, shards can contaminate other recyclables like cardboard and paper and can pose a risk to recycling facility workers.
So what’s a consumer or business to do? Environmental consultant Great Forest suggests buying less glass and seeking out alternatives, looking for manufacturer take-back programs or looking for a program that specializes in glass recycling.
The only program in near the Wenatchee Valley to do so is 911 Glass Rescue, a service provided by the Lake Chelan Rotary Club that repurposes glass into useful products. The project will operate 8 a.m to noon each Saturday beginning July 24.
Rotary member and project lead Julie McCoy said the project is currently open to the public, not just residents of Chelan, although that could change in the future depending on demand.