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Danger of crushing the UK’s glass recycling success

British Glass welcomes MRW’s initiative to open up the debate on the quality of waste materials and the promotion of its ‘Recycling United – Time for Quality’ campaign. 

Glass containers (bottles and jars) have been collected from the household waste stream for re-melt since the first bottle bank was installed in Barnsley in 1977. The driver behind the industry’s need for glass waste was, and still is, that when used as a raw material it melts at a much lower temperature than virgin batch, so saving 322kW hours of energy per tonne recycled.

In today’s climate change-driven world it also delivers a saving of 246kg of CO2 per tonne recycled and 1.2 tonnes of virgin raw materials from being quarried.

If the deterioration in quality of UK waste arisings continues and the market on the Continent for good quality cullet tightens, UK glass manufacturers could find themselves with additional costs running into tens of millions of pounds through failure to achieve targets, the need to purchase more carbon credits and additional energy costs.

Container glass accounts for about 70% of UK glass tonnage and is capable of being genuinely recycled in a closed loop system. It is a process that can be repeated indefinitely so the environmental benefits are not just a ‘one off’.

Currently 61% of the UK glass packaging waste stream is recycled, and of that figure 62% is returned to the glass industry for re-melt either in the UK or through exports to Europe – mainly green glass which is excess to requirement. These may seem impressive figures but, since 2006, while overall recycling levels have continued to rise, the amount of glass being returned to the industry for re-melt has declined.

The reason behind this is that local authorities – which have weight-based targets aimed at landfill avoidance – have tended to pursue a policy of commingling waste materials. This has turned this valuable resource into a conglomeration of materials which is expensive to sort or even renders them unsortable. This means that there is only one market for this waste: aggregates. But work undertaken by the Waste & Resources Action Programme concluded that there is no environmental benefit whatsoever in disposing of glass waste in this manner.

We are also concerned about the increasing amount of glass waste being processed through materials recycling facilities, where the glass is crushed into such small fractions (sub-10mm) that it cannot be used for re-melt. Contamination from pyroceramics is also an issue.

The removal of bottle banks by some local authorities has aggravated the situation in that these ‘bring systems’ were, and still are, a useful source of good-quality colour-separated glass. The UK has less than half of the number of bottle banks per head of population than the European average and the number is continuing to decline. In the short term it is possible for us to import ‘clean’ cullet from Europe, but there
is no guarantee that this market will remain fluid in the future.

Unfilled capacity

During the past 12 months, UK glass container manufacturers have been able to process only 662,000 tonnes into re-melt while the capacity exists for 1.6 million tonnes. The difference between the two figures could be expressed in savings of more than a million tonnes in virgin raw material extracted, 286,000MW hours of energy and 220,000 tonnes of CO2.

This is causing consternation among those who are attempting to negotiate future targets under the Climate Change Agreement and the Emissions Trading Scheme. If the trend continues it might also affect the UK’s ability to be able to keep within some of the limits set out in our integrated pollution prevention and control permits. 

If the deterioration in quality of UK waste arisings continues and the market on the Continent for good quality cullet tightens, UK glass manufacturers could find themselves with additional costs running into tens of millions of pounds through failure to achieve targets, the need to purchase more carbon credits and additional energy costs.

These issues are well known to officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who are about to consult on the future of the UK’s packaging waste strategy.

There needs to be a fundamental change in policy direction so that all elements that make up the waste stream are targeted at achieving the same resource efficiency and carbon targets. It is ridiculous that there is one packaging recovery note (PRN) value regardless of whether glass goes to aggregate or to closed loop re-melt. We hope this will be recognised in future government strategy.

As part of the review, British Glass would also like to see a change in definitions so that glass from the leisure industry (commercial waste) can be treated in the same way as household waste. This would allow, for example, bottle banks to be placed on pub car parks. We would also advocate the installation of banks in the grounds of high-rise blocks of flats.

In an ideal world, the container glass stream would be collected separately from other materials and by colour. To a certain extent this can be achieved through the bring bank system. But we recognise that the world is far from perfect and therefore a kerbside collection system that streams glass separately but with the colours mixed is the next preferred option. Failing that, if glass were collected mixed only with cans and/or plastic bottles it would still offer a realistic chance of good-quality material emerging for re-melt, but the costs of processing would be higher.

There are two further issues. First, if glass is collected separately it needs to remain separated throughout the waste stream and, second, the PRN system needs to be amended to give financial incentives to processors to return it to a quality standard that makes it suitable for re-melt rather than send it for aggregate use.

Defra has recently suggested that the use of waste glass as an aggregate be phased out and that an eventual ban on landfill be imposed. We would support these two objectives. But so they could be realised, there needs to be a sea change in attitudes toward quality throughout the entire waste stream.

The flat glass sector has also made great strides in recent years in increasing its recycling rates. As construction waste is an issue rising up the resource efficiency agenda, the same principles concerning quality of waste arisings would apply here too.

David Workman is director general of British Glass

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Readers' comments (1)

  • well this is just fine
    So we are to encourage more glass recycling at a time when the glass procesors have decided that the glut of glass and the decline in the PRN value means they will charge for each tonne taken over the weighbridge?
    We have customers that have gone to great lengths to segragate their glass from general and this is collected with a charge - now I will have to go to them and say thank you for recycling so well but unfortunatley we are going to have to put your prices up - how can that be fair?

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