Houston’s move to remove glass from the curbside stream kills a planned multi-million-dollar industry investment there, according to an executive at glass processing company Strategic Materials.

“If the City of Houston isn’t committed to recycling, then we’re not going to spend the money,” Curt Bucey told Resource Recycling. “We [will] save our $8 million now.”

Bucey, executive vice president of industry strategy and growth at Houston-based Strategic Materials, is among the glass-recycling advocates fuming at the announcement of a proposed two-year agreement between Houston and Waste Management (WM) removing glass from curbside collections. The Glass Packaging Institute (GPI) called the move “bad public policy.”

When contacted by Resource Recycling, the Houston mayor’s office declined to directly address the criticisms or the cancelled investment and instead referred to an earlier city press release. WM released a statement noting that glass will still be collected through drop-off centers. The company said many cities, counties and other local government units across the U.S. are wrestling with the difficulties of dealing with the material through curbside collections.

“Glass will still be collected and recycled – just not in the curbside recycling cart,” according to the WM statement. “Some items (e.g. clothes and furniture) are better recycled through other systems and not in curbside carts – glass is one of those items.”

The Houston City Council must still approve a contract before it can go into effect. The council will consider the deal at its March 23 meeting. Houston, which serves 380,000 single-family households with curbside recycling collections, would be the largest city in the U.S. to prohibit curbside glass recycling collection, according to GPI.

Strategic impacts

When the two-year agreement was announced on March 11, Strategic Materials was just “days away” from signing a deal with Anheuser-Busch that would have led the secondary glass processor to install an optical sortation unit in Houston at a cost of $8 million, Bucey said. It would have enabled bottle-to-bottle recycling at an existing plant.

“I think it’s a shame,” Bucey said. “I think the City of Houston was very, very close to being the model city for glass recycling.”

Strategic Materials currently receives an estimated 1,000 tons of material per month from Houston’s curbside program, although up to half can be contamination, not glass, he said. The material is shipped 230 miles north to the town of Midlothian, Texas, outside of Dallas. A local plant would have improved the freight economics, Bucey said.

“(The latest decision) just reinforces that cities are not very connected to what’s going on in glass recycling,” he said. “They don’t understand it.”

He added cities can create environments in which glass becomes a positive-value commodity – he said the key is including a specification in contracts and requiring it be cleaned.

Reduced recycling rate

Other glass stakeholders also criticized the Houston development. GPI said changing accepted materials in a program because of short-term market changes is “a bad precedent to set.”

“It will confuse customers, increasing contamination, which long term could drive up the overall costs of recycling,” GPI said in a response to Resource Recycling’s questions.

GPI calculated the decision would significantly drop the city’s recycling rate. In its 2016 budget, Houston estimates it has a 30 percent rate. GPI calculated it would drop below 24 percent by removing glass, said Lynn Bragg, president of GPI.

“The impact of this decision will be very detrimental,” according to GPI. “The City will also have to pay more to dispose of glass at the landfills, as the number of tons landfilled will increase. The recycling rate for the city will also decrease by 22 percent with glass removed from the curbside program. Residents not only want to recycle glass bottles and jars, they expect their cities and counties to provide them that option.”

However, GPI said the Houston decision will not have large reverberating effects on glass collection in other cities and predicted most communities would retain curbside glass programs.

“We think providing glass recycling is an investment that most communities will want to make when faced with the alternative of sending this 100 percent recyclable materials to the landfill,” according to GPI.

Glass collection challenges

In a press conference, Turner emphasized the city will still collect glass at six community collection centers. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, the centers accept glass and other materials after residents sign in and provide ID showing their residency.

In its press release, the city noted excluding glass would lower costs for WM, because the material generally breaks during collection and hauling to MRFs. “It is also unduly destructive to the processing equipment,” according to the release.

Bucey of Strategic Materials, however, said he doubted residents would haul only their glass down to the centers. “I would anticipate the volume to be one-tenth of almost nothing,” he said. “That’s rhetoric to make it sound good. That’s not a commitment to recycling.”

But WM noted Houston is not alone in facing difficulties with glass in a commingled curbside mix and that cities across the country are choosing to collect it via drop-sites instead.

“It’s a shift cities from New Mexico to Georgia are making in order to control their costs while maintaining the integrity of their broader curbside recycling programs,” WM stated.