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Assessing the circularity of single-use glass

Zero Waste Europe and Eunomia investigate the circularity of single-use container glass in Germany, France, the UK and US; Germany has the highest collection rates for glass and the highest proportion of recycled glass in containers; US is the lowest due to lack of collection facilities and mixed collection of glass with other packaging types; collecting glass separately and by color is the most effective way to increase circularity.

In 2020, 80% of glass packaging sold in Europe was collected for recycling (FPF reported). But how do collection programs in different countries affect the amount of glass that gets collected? And how much of that collected material is effectively recycled back into packaging? On September 1, 2022, Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) published a report diving into the circularity of single-use container glass in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and United States to find where glass gets lost, and how the regions can improve at each step of the recycling process.

For each of the countries investigated, ZWE and their research partner Eunomia used four measurements to assess circularity, (i) collection rate, the amount of glass collected versus what is sold within the country; (ii) recycling rate, how much of the collected glass is good for remelting versus glass on the market; (iii) closed-loop recycling rate, percentage that is turned into new glass packaging (the true circular recycling rate); and (iv) recycled content rate, the percentage of container glass produced in the country made of recycled glass.

Germany’s container glass recycling system is the most circular, it had the highest scores in all four measurements with 81% of container glass sold in the country collected for recycling, 79% is recycled, nearly all of which is recycled back to container glass, and 65% of glass packaging produced in the country is from recycled sources. France and the UK were roughly similar to one another in all aspects, collecting 70% and 71% respectively, though the UK recycles one-third less back into container glass. The US was noticeably the lowest with only a 44% glass collection rate and 21% closed loop recycling rate.

ZWE identified the methods of recycling collection for as a major source of loss of circular container glass in the UK and US. Much of the recycling in both countries is either collected with multiple packaging types mixed or even when glass is collected separately the different colors are still mixed. To recycle glass back into containers, it must be separated by color. By mixing the colors, the US and UK increase the chances of contamination and make it harder, and thus more expensive, to recycle. ZWE found that 7% of the glass that is lost during recycling in the US is due to a failure to find a buyer for the material and the collected glass is instead sent to landfill.

In The United States, states with a well-run deposit return scheme for glass beverage bottles “achieve collection rates between 75% and 59%. Similarly, existing [deposit return scheme] systems for glass in Europe are currently achieving between 84% and 89% collection rates for glass beverage bottles in 2019 and have since improved in some cases (e.g., Finland reported a 98% glass collection rate in 2021).” Deposit systems with color sorting would improve nearly all measures in countries like the UK and US which, at this time, do not widely implement such programs.

The United States senate is currently considering two bills to increase access to recycling in the country (FPF reported). Scotland plans to implement a deposit return scheme for beverage containers beginning in 2023 (FPF reported) and UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), with encouragement from local civil society organizations, is designing extended producer responsibility and deposit returns for England (FPF reported)

ZWE concludes that the circularity of single-use glass packaging is highly country specific. Therefore, the two main factors that influence the ability for a high circularity are the effectiveness and the methods of collection for recycling. A high-quality separate collection system can help to achieve this. As an alternative for single-use glass they also point out the potential of an efficient refillable system.

This article was republished with permission from the Food Packaging Forum. View the original version.

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