That story out of Germany has me thinking about recycling. Not too long ago, I spent quite a bit of time trying to determine if I could start a glass recycling business in my community. I live in an environmentally hip town. If I told people I could recycle their glass, they would throw their unwed daughters at me.
Unfortunately, I have a little bit of what passes for a business education these days, and as I tried to develop a business plan for my idea I encountered problems with the entire idea of glass recycling.
First, let’s not kid ourselves: recycling is an industrial activity. It requires transportation for collection, large space for storage, facilities for converting the glass to cullet (the recycled material), and then transportation facilities to move the cullet to market, or facilities on site, where resources will be spend to fabricate the recycled glass into new product: my idea was glass countertops and bar tops. I like to eat and drink.
All of this activity costs a great deal of money. It also uses a lot of resources and creates its own waste stream. I understand from my research that glass recycling can be slightly more environmentally economical than the production of glass from raw materials. But you still need a market for your product. In my planning I found that recycled glass did not seem cost-competitive with new glass, which meant that for many businesses the incentives for using recycled glass just didn’t make par on the old balance sheet.
There are a lot of reasons for the dearth of markets for recycled glass, the first of which had to do with the incredibly, unbelievably, no-adjective-too-far specifications for the color, content, and clarity (or lack thereof) of the glass bottles into which beer companies would bottle their precious ales, lagers, and stouts (and reds; did I mention I like to drink?). It is damn near impossible to match their requirements with recycled glass.
We also need to understand that glass is an inert material: it doesn’t pollute. Glass can neither harm the environment nor injure human health. Glass is fused silica, a very cheap and plentiful resource as I discovered during my business planning. Eventually, whether a thousand or even a million years, your beer bottle will again be a sand castle on a beach. And the idea that glass takes up landfill space is a bit farcical: the dozer pushing the trash around will run over your bottles a few times and the problem of space is solved.
In the end, with all the problems we face, I am not a proponent of spending community resources on glass recycling. If a private business has a market for the product, let them spend the money to collect and transport the glass. Local communities have more pressing budgetary concerns, and we all can identify wiser ways to spend our scarce resources to protect the environment. I have not touched on the subject of opportunity cost before, but let me briefly say that the money you spend on a non-environmental harm like glass may be better used buying open space, or preserving wildlife habitat, or building hiking trails. Make your choice, just don’t choose glass.