When China and rising costs stopped curbside glass recycling in southwestern Pennsylvania five years ago, the Pennsylvania Resources Council and its partners and supporters — government officials, glass recyclers and industries, and passionate citizens — searched for a solution to bring it back.

The PRC started with pop-up glass recycling throughout the region in 2019, while government officials worked to find a way to fund a more permanent and cooperative method for residents.

The results? Nine communities work together in a glass recycling collaborative, funded in part by a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection grant awarded to Dormont. PRC offers a traveling bin that has let residents drop off their bottles, jugs and jars at parks and communities in partnership with Allegheny County and other sponsors. Tons of the eternally recyclable — and profitable — glass products have been collected and processed through these efforts.

To mark this success and provide educational materials for communities, PRC last month released a video and posted a colorful zine on its website. Both laud the progress already made and explain the ease and benefits of glass recycling.

“Toss a bottle into a recycling bin in Western Pennsylvania and send that bottle on a journey that can result in a new amber, green or clear bottle on a store shelf in 30 days or less,” according to a PRC news release. “Thanks to the region’s robust glass manufacturing, processing and recycling industry, the entire process never even needs to cross state lines.”

PRC Deputy Director Sarah Alessio Shea explains, “We’re excited to offer a behind-the scenes look at where your bottle travels and encourage everyone to recycle glass since it’s 100% forever recyclable.  Our five-minute video showcases PRC’s many partners who enable us to bolster glass recycling, an industry that spurs economic growth by feeding a circular economy while at the same time protecting the environment by saving energy and conserving natural resources.”

The companion zine, “We Recycle Glass in SW Pennsylvania,” includes the “Faces of Glass,” the history of glass making (Pittsburgh was once home to 80% of the state’s glass factories), options for finding recycling locations, and a glass glossary.  The booklet also follows the journey of a Red Ribbon soda bottle from recycling bin back to store shelf.

How does it work? After the bins are full, Michael Brothers Hauling & Recycling transports the contents 40 miles away to CAP Glass in Mount Pleasant, where the bottle is crushed into pebble-like cullet, Shea explains. Then just 100 miles north, workers at the Owens-Illinois Glass in Brockway remelt the cullet and mold it back into a glass bottle, jar or jug.

Shea is pleased that the short video and zine pack a lot of information about glass recycling into a short period of time. It also seeks to dispel some myths. “What the video shows is the economic impacts of recycling,” she said. “The program itself uses a local hauling company, a local company that cleans the glass and a local manufacturing plant.  All employ people in Pennsylvania. The impacts go beyond recycling.

“Locally even, there is a huge market [for glass recycling]. O-I is just one of the glass manufacturers in the region, and we know they are looking for more recyclable glass. The more we can give them, the more they can add to the bottles being put back into circulation.”

The video features the O-I plant in Brockway, and it has two plants in the area, one that manufactures clear glass and one green glass. The green glass supplies Yuengling brewing company with all its beer bottles, Shea said.

Vito Gerasole, owner of Natrona Bottling Works that makes Red Ribbon — “Pittsburgh’s pop” — notes another benefit of using glass bottles for beverages in the video and zine: “It screams higher quality, and it keeps the favor. I’m a fan of glass.”

Shea said while some communities chose to work with Dormont in the collaborative and share costs to install permanent blue bins for their residents, others can only afford and still want the PRC traveling glass collection bins. “We’ve been very lucky to be able to work with Dormont and have this funding through the state,” she said. “That really makes all of this happen, along with the buy in from municipalities to pay for the hauling costs and find it a benefit for residents. They’re all so great to work with and so passionate about recycling.”

Dormont Borough Manager Ben Estell wrote the state grant that propelled a glass recycling collaborative among communities in the region. (Pennsylvania Resources Council)

The grant started at the end of 2021 with the installation of two permanent bins at Village Square Mall in Bethel Park in 2022 . Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair joined Dormont in this effort.

Residents can also drop off their glass recyclables at Michael Brothers locations in the South Hills and North Hills.

What started borough officials looking for recycling alternatives? China stopping the importation of recyclable materials, something it had permitted for more than 25 years, with its National Sword policy in January 2018. Ben Estell, Dormont’s borough manager explained, “That had been the backbone of our recycling operations. We’d send it over, [and] they’d send back recycled materials. The [waste hauling] industry was ill prepared to do what was next.”

The big issue for China and all the importing countries was that food waste and broken glass contaminated the recycling process. “It happened when we moved to single stream recycling,” he said. “Glass got broken in the trucks and contaminated other recyclables. Most of the waste haulers said, ‘We’re not taking your glass anymore. It’s out.’ “ 

Add to that the fact that Pennsylvania does not require that glass be collected in recycling efforts; officials just needed to pick three items for those collections. So most did not choose glass, Estell said.

Like people in other communities, Dormont residents wanted it back, he said. The borough’s track record to working with surrounding communities, especially Mt. Lebanon, he said, helped with financial roadblocks. As he worked through the grant process, Estell said Dormont and its surrounding communities scheduled PRC’s traveling bins to set up for glass collection. “We were generating a ton of recycling. But at the same time, it was not getting as much as they could because we didn’t have a permanent site,” he said.  

The Village Square Mall location has grown into a great relationship, Estell said. Residents from other nearby communities not part of the collaborative can bring their glass there as well.

“We represent a large percentage of the glass recycling in southwestern Pennsylvania, which has been verified by PRC. [I] believe we make up 20% of all the glass recycled in southwestern Pennsylvania. We are very proud of what we can do here,” he said.

Other communities in the collaborative are McCandless, Moon, Mt. Oliver, and the 2023 additions — Oakmont and Pine.

Oakmont assistant manager Phyllis Anderson appears in the new Pennsylvania Resources video and zine that promotes glass recycling in the region. (Pennsylvania Resources Council)

Oakmont worked with Verona to bring the blue bin to the borough, according to Phyllis Anderson, assistant manager. Oakmont did collect glass three times a year through its waste hauling company. That started in 2021, she said. The next year Oakmont collected 15 tons of glass, doubling the amount saved from landfills prior. Anderson found out, though, that people were throwing glass out because they didn’t have anywhere to store it between collections.

She learned about Dormont’s grant through Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs CONNECT program. The DEP grant reduced glass recycling costs, and the partnership with Verona dropped them more, she said. So instead of paying its waste hauler $8,195 for three collections, the initial cost is $2,500 for Oakmont for the bin. It also splits the hauling fee each time that bin needs to be emptied — $400 — that collaborative members are responsible for with Verona. Fees will drop in the second year, thanks to the grant.

The two boroughs kicked off glass recycling on St. Patrick’s Day, appropriately, she said because it would generate lots of those glass bottles. Oakmont has collected 20 tons of glass since March, Anderson proudly reports.

Technology helps there. Estell explained that each bin has a camera inside. The hauler knows when to come and collect the glass, making the process more efficient with fewer trips.

The DEP grant will expire this November, and it has room for one more municipality to join the collaborative. PRC, Anderson and Estell all have goals to continue recycling to keep glass and more out of landfills, as well as other methods to help the environment.

Shea said PRC will continue its traveling glass bin and relationships with partners, and all are welcome to use the new promotional materials to educate and alert residents. Allegheny County’s been a great supporter, she notes, and the collection events in its parks are always popular.

PRC has been applying for grants to spread glass recycling through the state, and an effort is underway to bring it near Media. Shea also has interest from Cambria, Lawrence and Mercer counties. More locally, it wants to work with eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, such as Monroeville and Penn Hills. Communities can apply for recycling act grants, she noted. Most of those cover the costs of the bins; governments need to pay hauling costs.

An enthusiastic Anderson wants Oakmont to turn the dead-end portion of Ann Street, where the glass bin is located, into a recycling center. Right now, the borough has an aluminum can collector there as well, but Anderson wants a cardboard recycler and clothing collection bins, too.

She is talking to the city of Pittsburgh about its pilot project for a food waste collection and composting effort, and if the grant process is successful, she can see Oakmont joining in. She’s also looking forward to a free paper shredding event on Oct. 7 — Oakmont’s third — with the goal of filling that truck. It will continue its hard-to-recycle-waste event with PRC, too.

Further the borough has partnered with Duquesne Light to get electric vehicle charging stations that residents can use for $2 an hour and bought a Ford 150 Lightning electric truck for its parks department. And it brings goats in from Capricious LLC in Butler to get rid of vegetation along the Allegheny River.

“The vision for Oakmont is to be the most sustainable place to work, live and play,” Anderson said.

Estell, an ardent recycler along with his family, believes food waste is the next item for all to tackle in recycling efforts. He is aware of the Pittsburgh pilot project, too.

Government officials can do their part, but he believes so must individuals. “Years ago, we had the slogan ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle.’ Reducing our consumption was the first goal. Reusing is the second goal. The third option is to recycle.  We’ve spent so much time on the third option, we haven’t spent as much time on the first two.”

Officials and Pennsylvania Resources Council staff cut the ribbon on the first permanent glass recycling bins at Village Square Mall. (Pennsylvania Resources Council)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.