The empty wine bottle sat on the counter for nearly a week before I could bring myself to throw it in the trash. I know I am not alone. On social media and in face-to-face conversation, so many of my neighbors throughout Greenville and Spartanburg are bemoaning the end of glass recycling. For those of us who strive to be good stewards of the Earth, it hurts our hearts to toss out items that we were accustomed to recycling. And the fact that this change happened in April, Earth Month, made the sting sharper yet.
Some have expressed their anger toward their city and county governments, but this vitriol is misplaced, because there is simply no place locally to bring the glass.
A successful glass recycling program must have a number of supporting elements: a materials recovery facility (MRF) willing to invest in glass-separating technology, and manage the continued damage that glass fragments do to the rest of the equipment; a nearby glass processor; ample supply; and a secondary market that gives economic value to recycled glass. Unfortunately, the Upstate has lost all four of these elements over the past year.
In years past, the prices that other commodities – such as metal, plastic and cardboard – could command propped up recycling programs in South Carolina. But recycling commodity prices follow oil prices, and as oil prices have fallen dramatically, so has the value of the contents of our recycling bin. Early this year, one of the Upstate’s two existing recovery facilities shut down and our lone glass processor closed its doors. The remaining facility announced it would stop accepting glass shortly thereafter. Suddenly, there was nowhere for our local governments to take the glass they collect from us. Trucking it to Georgia or North Carolina is not a feasible alternative, as the transportation costs would be greater than the market value of the used glass.
But “recycle” is just one of the three “R’s” in the logo we see on the bins and trucks. With glass, it’s time to prioritize the other two: reduce and reuse.
First, purchase fewer products in glass containers. The City of Greenville is poised to start accepting a much greater variety of plastics for recycling, while Greenville County already does, so your choice is easier.
Second, wash and reuse glass containers for storage. They can last a long time (if you don’t drop them!), and you can see exactly what’s inside.
And when we cannot reduce or reuse, when we must throw away glass, it is helpful to remember that glass accounts for only 2-4 percent of what’s in the landfill (by weight). That should put the issue in perspective. In addition, glass is made mostly from sand, not from petroleum or another scarce or problematic resource. It contains nothing that could potentially leach out of a landfill and contaminate our water supplies. It doesn’t emit anything smelly or toxic into our air.
So if not glass, what are the big offenders in our trash bins? More than half of the tonnage in our landfills comes from two sources: paper and organics (primarily food waste). In fact, each of these constitutes around 30 percent of landfill contents. If you want to make a difference, these are the two categories to set your sights upon.
Upstate Forever members launched a challenge for Earth Month (April) to reduce household waste. Will you join us and extend the challenge beyond this month?
Through conscious consumption, Don and Julie Shabkie of Greenville have managed to fill up their big green bin only once in four months. Their neighbor Jodi Hajosy was inspired to do the same, but with a family of five!
But even incremental changes can make a big difference. If you can cut down the amount you throw away so that you bring your trash out to the curb every two weeks instead of every week, that is a big step in the right direction. If you can inspire two neighbors to do the same, your impact is tripled.
Key to any significant waste-reduction effort is a fourth “R”: rot. Compost your food waste, even if you aren’t a gardener. Compost bins can be purchased at local stores or created as a DIY project. The City of Greenville recently held an event with compost bins on sale for $20 – check for future sales at bit.ly/recycling-events. If you have a large enough property, open compost heaps are an option. Clemson University Extension has extensive resources on composting at bit.ly/clemson-composting. But unless you are a serious gardener, don’t get bogged down over balancing your greens and browns. Simply by diverting food waste from the landfill, you are accomplishing something important.
Nancy Fitzer is the education director at Upstate Forever, a nonprofit organization promoting sensible growth and the protection of special places in the Upstate of South Carolina.