And Now For Some Good News About Recycling (#CleanTechnica Interview)

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China blew up the global recycling industry last year when it banned imports of trash, but there is a bright spot. Although the market for recycled glass can be challenging, the glass industry is positioned for a new burst of growth if and when single-use plastic containers go out of style. Building elements, solar panels, electronics, and automotive applications are also driving the demand for glass.

All this helps explain why the US company Pace Glass is dropping $90 million on a brand new, high tech glass recycling facility in New Jersey, which is already being billed as the largest in the world. Earlier this week CleanTechnica caught up with the entrepreneur behind Pace, CEO George Valiotis, for some further insights into the prospects for a glass recycling bonanza in the US.

The Industry Of The Future

Before we get to Mr. Valiotis, here’s a bit of background. Back in 2002 — before the flood of solar panels, mobile devices and other glass-dependent electronics picked up steam — the National Renewable Energy Laboratory produced a report titled, “Glass: Industry of the Future.” The lab painted this rosy picture:

The unique properties and cost-effectiveness of glass have helped establish and maintain its prominent use in buildings, transportation,containers, and scientific products. Glass has also found new uses in the communications and electronics industries and many experts believe that the potential for creating diverse materials and products from glass has hardly been realized.

Yay. Unfortunately for the US glass industry, though, competition from plastic and aluminum continues to be fierce, leading to a squeeze on the market for recycled glass. Last spring industry observers in the US state of Rhode Island weighed the pluses and minuses:

Recycled glass is less expensive than raw silica for making new bottles. Cullet [the raw form of recycled glass] is also used to manufacture fiber optics, reflective clothing and abrasive products. It’s also used for road construction. But glass can be difficult and expensive to clean, sort and recycle. Broken glass can “contaminate” other recyclables if it’s collected through a single-stream collection programs, such as Rhode Island’s, and prevent other items from getting recycled.

State Of The Art Glass Recycling

If you spotted that thing about contamination, that’s where Mr. Valiotis and his company spotted an opportunity, not a problem (following comments edited for flow and clarity).

CleanTechnica: What is the advantage of recycled glass?

Valiotis: The biggest value proposition to our customers is that when recycled glass is used in furnaces, the energy savings can be as high as 50 or 60%. Glass manufactures are big emitters of carbon dioxide, so that’s a strong incentive to use recycled glass.

Collecting the glass helps preserve landfill space. Our feedstock is glass waste, so it has a very high waste content. There is a large presence of contaminants like paper, plastic, and metal.

CleanTechnica: How will the new facility differ from conventional glass recycling facilities?

Valiotis: The new facility is state of art. It is on a completely different level. Most recyclers process glass from redemption centers. Their feedstock is relatively clean so is relatively easy to recycle.

Our feedstock has a lot of glass but it also waste from other recycling operations. It is extremely dirty. Our optical sorters focus on glass. There are metal detectors for sorting ferrous and non-ferrous metals for recycling, and depending on the feedstock we can also sort usable plastic.

The rest goes to refuse-derived fuel. There is a market for it in the US and also overseas in countries like China and India.

Recycling And Renewable Energy

Valiotis explained that the New Jersey site was selected to maximize both rail and highway access to high population areas in the US northeast, including New York and Connecticut as well as New England.

It’s also worth noting that the site selection minimizes transportation and land preservation issues. The new facility is being constructed on the grounds of a former quarry.

CleanTechnica: How will you collect the feedstock?

Valiotis: Some feedstock will be dropped off but right now we have a fleet of 25 trucks and we do a lot of pickups. With the new facility we will go up to 50 trucks.

Right now we’re using diesel trucks. When the new plant is up and running we’ll look at battery trucks, depending on the technology and price point.

We will also have solar panels plus waste to energy. Potentially, we could operate off the grid.

The building is 350,000 square feet. That’s enough roof for a one-megawatt system. We could also place solar canopies over our truck stops.

Next Steps For Single Stream Recycling

If the new Andover facility is anything like Israel’s new single-stream facility — the Hirya Recycling Park — it’s going to be quite impressive.

It could also signal an industry-wide shift. Although the recycled glass field was not affected by China’s waste ban, Valiotis foresees that recyclers will become sophisticated, with more companies innovating and investing more in R&D.

You’re also going to see some interesting developments in the recycled glass field as the current crop of solar panels ages out and heads for the recycling bin, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo: via Pace Glass.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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