Why You Should Always Recycle Glass (Even When It's Inconvenient)

The philosophy of environmentalism first became popular in the late 1800s; since those earlier days, we have seen considerable growth in the expanse of what came to be known as the “environmental movement.” The first musings of such a movement likely stemmed from literary philosophers like Thoreau; writers, who gave up urban living to find enlightenment and contentment amongst nature. These philosophers called for a simpler mode of living, detached from the so-called necessities of a more modern, materialistic world. In our own age today, the environmental movement has been shaped by a more popular trend we call “Going Green.” This trend has largely been characterized by the practice of recycling.

Environmentalism took a more radical turn in the 90s when hard-hitting groups like PETA evolved to expose the cruel underbelly of the exploitation of nature and animals — both domestic, and wild. Whilst such progressive activism for a healthier planet continues to revolutionize the environmental movement, today the 'Going Green' trend is characterized more by DIY projects, homesteading and heart-gripping documentaries about our world’s waters. Most associate this trend with recycling, and we are constantly reminded of the negative effects which irresponsible plastic and other waste can have on some of our largest ecosystems. But rarely do we turn an inquisitive eye on glass. 

Chances are, we most of us know how to properly recycle our plastic goods and many of us likely participate in responsible recycling. But few of us know about the harsh effects which glass can have on the environment, and the importance of recycling it outside the comfort of our own homes.

Glass is made of four components: sand, soda ash, limestone and colour additives. Currently, there is no risk of shortage in these raw materials, but sourcing them often causes land degradation — these materials must be quarried, which involves digging large pits of land from which they are extracted. This process not only changes the landscape of ecosystems, but also uses mass amounts of energy which causes further damage to the environment. Glass is 100% recyclable, which means it can be reduced and reused without losing any of its quality. In other words, recycling glass is far better for the environment than continuously making it “from scratch.” 

There are several types of glass, all of which should and can be recycled. The most popular are soda-lime glass (most common), lead glass and borosilicate glass (used for items such as Pyrex cookware). It is likely that much of the glassware you use is made of soda-lime glass. Other glass products (such as windows) are made from various types of glass that we don’t often use in our everyday lives. 

Each time we throw out glassware, we probably don’t consider where that glass ends up, or how long it can take for the glass to degrade. Silica is the major component of sand; we know (thanks to the helpful, aforementioned info) that sand is one of the key ingredients in glass. Silica also happens to be one of the most stable minerals on Earth, which means it’s pretty hard to break down. Exposed to high temperatures, glass may weaken slightly, causing its lifespan to decrease; but it is highly unlikely that glass is exposed to these conditions when sitting around in landfills, or worse, in natural habitats (like oceans). Because it is far more difficult for glass to degrade compared to items made of plastic, for instance, it can take up to one million years for a piece of glass to deteriorate. When much of this glass sits in landfills, makes its way into our oceans or is littered throughout natural habitats, the consequences of irresponsible recycling can be devastating. 

How much glass, exactly, is sitting in these landfills? No true percentage is known, but what may be shocking are the numbers reflective of our collective habits. According to a statement from KAB (Keeping America Beautiful), in 2009 Americans through away over 9 million tons of glass, much of which ended up in landfills. A 2007 report from Cask showed that 75% of glass nationwide ended up in landfills across Canada. That’s a lot of glass, waiting for, well, nothing. But recycling this glass can provide enough energy to power needed electricity in homes for up to four hours. If all glass was properly recycled, just think of how much energy could be saved and put to better use. 

If the thought of millions of tons of glass sitting in landfills isn’t scary enough, consider the amount of litter and debris in our oceans — our largest ecosystems — which kill thousands of marine species every year. Plastic bags, pieces of glass, and other litter is often mistaken for food by fish, sharks, dolphins, turtles…the list goes on. These creatures eventually die from the consumption of such litter, which causes immense harm and slow suffering. Properly and responsibly recycling glass is just one method of preventing that suffering; according to the WWF, recycled glass can also reduce air pollution by 20% and related water pollution by 50%. 

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Glass is also a better option over plastic. For instance, each time a plastic bottle is recycled, unlike glass it cannot just be remade into a new plastic bottle; that’s because plastic loses its integrity when reduced and must be made into a different plastic item, such as a container. Because of this, many see plastic recycling as downcycling; meaning, it is never truly “recycled” but rather, loses much of its value and must be turned into something else. This simply creates more waste, most of which gets consumed by wildlife or lays around in landfills for months, sometimes years. Glass is also easier to clean, and can be reused for multiple purposes. Take water bottles: you may buy a fancy bottle of Voss water, which traditionally comes in a sturdy glass bottle; this can be washed and reused as a water bottle. Plastic, however, is notoriously unsafe for reusability as it can harbour bacteria; the reuse of plastic water bottles has also been linked to various forms of cancer. 

Recycling glass is beneficial for everyone, not just the environment. The negative impacts which stem from irresponsible glass recycling — basically, when you don’t recycle glass — far outweigh the short-term benefit of lazily throwing glass away to sit forever in a landfill. Think about it: a glass jar will outlive generations of people simply by laying in a landfill. It can also kill wildlife, contribute to environmental stressors through continuous recreation, and plays a significant role in both air and water pollution when not recycled. With the environmental and economic benefits of glass recycling clearly outnumbering the “cons,” who could say no proper glass recycling? We all want to do our part and play a role in the green movement; why not start by throwing that glass jar in the right bin?

Editors Note: Many businesses offer plastic and paper recycling but do not recycle glass. Always ask wherever you are and if all else fails, take that bottle home with you. It's a small, sometimes tedious, action you can take that genuinely makes a difference. And if you have broken glass, double check with your local recycling programs and facilities before disposing of it safely. While most programs will not accept broken glass, some will through an 'alternative drop-off' for the safety of their employees.

 
 
Enviro 101Jacalyn Beales