Monday, September 28, 2009

CHEYENNE, Wyo. | After working out at a gym, Amy Mahaffy dropped off a half-dozen glass jars in a city recycling container before heading home.

The containers, however, won’t end up being recycled any time soon. Their destination: a mound of glass at the city landfill, an ever-growing monument to the difficulty many communities across the country face in finding a market for a commodity that’s too cheap for its own good.

“We are stockpiling it in a desperate search for a market,” landfill foreman Monty Landers said.

Cheyenne hasn’t recycled the glass it collects - 9 tons a week - for years. Instead, the city has been putting it in the landfill, using it to surround the concrete-walled wells that pump toxic fluids out of the dump.

Told where the glass bottles and jars that she diligently rinses out end up, Ms. Mahaffy seemed dismayed. “I don’t think that’s what they should be doing with it,” she said. “I think they should be recycling it.”

The economics of glass recycling have been marginal for some time.

Nationwide, only about 25 percent of glass containers are recycled. That’s compared with 31 percent of plastic containers, 45 percent of aluminum cans and 63 percent of steel cans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In northern Idaho, Kootenai County gave up collecting glass last year. In Oregon, which was the first of 11 states to adopt a bottle deposit law in 1971, Deschutes County stockpiled 1,000 tons of glass at its landfill before finally finding a use for it a couple of years ago - as fill beneath an area for collecting compost.

Glass also has piled up at the landfill serving Albuquerque, N.M., where officials this year announced that a manufacturer of water-absorbing horticultural stones would eventually use up their stockpiles. New York City gave up glass recycling from 2002 to 2004 because officials decided it was too costly.

In a sense, glass ought to be the perfect commodity to recycle. It can be recycled an infinite number of times. Melting down one glass bottle and making another isn’t particularly complicated or especially costly.

The challenge is that the main ingredient in glass, sand, is plentiful and cheap - often cheaper than cullet, which is glass that has been prepared for recycling.

Used glass must be sorted by color and cleaned before it can be crushed into cullet that is suitable for recycling into new containers. That contributes to much of the cost of recycling glass, said Joe Cattaneo, president of the Glass Packaging Institute in Alexandria, Va.

Another cost is transportation. The farther away a community is from glass processors and container manufacturers, he said, the more expensive it is to recycle it.

Cheyenne has been in touch with glass recyclers in Colorado but has not found a feasible arrangement for glass recycling, said Dennis Pino, director of the city sanitation department. “If we’re going to try and do something that’s going to put us in the hole, it’s not a good idea, especially with the economy,” Mr. Pino said.

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