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The Green Life: Hey Mr. Green: Glass Recycling

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October 04, 2011

Hey Mr. Green: Glass Recycling

Hey Mr. Green,

 Where I live, there is NO glass recycling. So is buying beverages in recyclable aluminum "greener" than buying non-recyclable glass? —Gerry, in New Orleans

Recycling glass is not easy in the Big Easy, because handling and transporting glass is not economically feasible, according to recycling contractors there. But take heart: It is indeed much greener to recycle aluminum containers than to send glass to the landfill. Although mining and manufacturing aluminum from scratch probably requires more energy than making glass (comparative studies on the subject disagree), recycling aluminum reduces aluminum’s energy use by a whopping 95 percent. Therefore, you come out way ahead when you recycle aluminum instead of dumping glass, in terms of energy conservation and greenhouse gas emission. Also, mining bauxite (aluminum ore) can be a dirty process, so recycling the metal helps reduce the environmental burden of mining.

You can also take solace in the fact that we now recycle more than 50 percent of the aluminum beverage containers in the United States, but then we throw away around 50 billion a year, or more than 700,000 tons of aluminum—enough, says the Container Recycling Institute, to build about 8,000 Boeing 747s. Progress or staggering waste? It depends on whether your proverbial beverage container is half full or half empty.

Your larger moral problem, if you’re a beer connoisseur, is that so many of the finest microbrews are not available in aluminum. Of course, as I’ve noted before the greenest option is the old-fashioned reusable, returnable container. When it comes to intelligent packaging, we continue see through a glass darkly.

And finally, kudos to New Orleans for its revival of recycling, even sans glass. As a result of the massive devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city’s curbside recycling program was suspended. Among other woes, tens of thousands of recycling bins were simply washed away in the horrendous flood. Happily, recycling was reinstated in much of the city this year, thanks to a coalition involving Sierra Club’s Delta Chapter that persuaded local political candidates to pledge to support recycling. More than 34,000 households had already signed up for the resurrected program.

P.S. A few places in New Orleans that do accept glass containers: Tulane’s Newcomb College, Target stores, and Whole Foods. While it’s obviously un-green to make a special recycling expedition, if you do go near their locations, do recycle your glass.


MR Green photo

BOB SCHILDGEN (aka Mr. Green) was managing editor and book review editor of Sierra magazine for many years, and continues to write Sierra's popular "Hey Mr. Green" environmental advice column. A native of rural Wisconsin, where he grew up on a farm, Schildgen now resides in Berkeley, California, where he indulges his passions for gardening and thrift by growing two dozen types of vegetables in his backyard.

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