Glass - how did we break the cycle?

What to write for my first blog?  It seems appropriate to start at the beginning.

Written By Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland  |  14 Feb 13

I grew up in Alloa, Clackmannanshire in the 1970s.  The town’s glass works were a ‘weel kent’ feature of the skyline and a major employer, even during hard times.

One of my early memories is of witnessing a glass works lorry shed its load of new bottles as it tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a tight bend. Nothing was wasted however as the decanted load was shovelled back into the lorry and returned to the factory so it could be put through the furnace once more.

It might be a stretch to say this incident influenced my future career in recycling and resource management, but it has helped forge my belief that circular resource management really can be simple, common sense.

Returning bottles back into bottles is not alchemy; just simple good management of a versatile and ubiquitous packaging product.

You would think that the Scottish glass industry would have benefitted hugely from the recycling revolution we have seen over the past decade or so.   And yet the amount of glass being made back into bottles has all but remained stable over this same period.  Instead glass which is collected for recycling here ends up either as aggregate or leaves our shores for someone else’s economy.

The paradox is that the glass industry in Scotland wants the bottles back.  Using recycled cullet reduces costs and energy demand.

This makes business sense: making the industry more competitive in a global marketplace.  There are also producer responsibility targets to meet and an increasing appetite from beer and whisky companies and retailers for more recycled content in their packaging.

We are currently working with a number of councils and in the hospitality industry to support separate glass collections, to feed material back into the remelt supply chain.

But we have to ask how the cycle got to be broken in the first place.  How did we reach a point where councils opt to commingle glass because it’s not deemed valuable enough to collect separately or at worst it’s a liability that can be passed on to others for nothing?  Have we made the system too complex in pursuit of recycling targets?  We obsess about new technological fixes yet overlook the basic principles of a system which supports the full cycle.  

It’s surely time for a rethink and a mature debate on the whole system rather than whether targets are right or not.  If we are to invest in new reprocessing and recycling capacity here in Scotland – creating jobs and growth – then it has to be as part of an effective system which is simple, transparent and seamless.  The glass story is a good example of how things can go awry and undermine what we’re all striving for if you don’t join the dots.

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