The sun was shining brightly on a mountain of discarded glass bottles at the I-95 Transfer Station last week for the announcement of a major change in recycling collections in Fairfax County. Effective last week, glass no longer will be accepted in curbside recycling bins. After much research and experimentation, Fairfax County’s Solid Waste Management Program arrived at a decision, and a new program, to handle glass recycling.
Unlike familiar plastic bottles, which can be recycled in the curbside bins, glass is both heavy and subject to breakage in the collection process. When glass breaks, the shards contaminate the rest of the recycled items, often causing the entire bin of items to be handled as trash, not recycling. Broken glass also presents a potential severe hazard to personnel who collect the bins, as well as those who sort out recycled items at regional MURFs (also known as Materials Recovery Facilities). It’s dusty, dirty, and backbreaking work, and broken glass makes it much more dangerous. Glass also is a heavy commodity, making it more expensive for haulers to collect and transport to a MURF for processing.
Enter Big Blue, an awesome machine that can crush up to 20 tons of glass per hour. Contrary to some opinions, glass bottles are not simply sanitized and re-used; they are crushed. I was told that the glass mountain I saw at the transfer station could be processed into cullet (small glass pebbles) and sand in about a day and a half if Big Blue ran constantly. A big yellow front loader picks up a large quantity of glass bottles, lifts the load into an elevated hopper which begins the process, moving glass up a conveyor belt to a cylinder that hammers the glass to smithereens. No longer looking much like glass, the pieces on the conveyor belt continue to a large concrete bunker where the fine sand shakes out into a smaller mountain, and the cullet proceeds to the next bunker, also in a large pile. The sand and the cullet handled by Big Blue are used in construction projects, especially as ballast for pipe bedding and road projects. A staff worker told me that the cullet and sand are so popular for local construction projects that Big Blue has trouble keeping up with demand.
According to the Glass Manufacturing Industry Council, bottle glass is 100 percent recyclable. Glass can be melted and recycled over and over again, without loss of quality, and the glass cullet can be mixed with other raw materials to make new glass. Surveys indicate that, unlike Europe, where 90 percent of glass bottles are recycled, only about a third of glass is recycled here in the United States.
What can you do with glass bottles? Recycle them in the Purple Cans — large dumpsters painted bright magenta — that are located in several Northern Virginia locations. The closest Purple Can for Mason District (and greater Falls Church) residents probably is at the Mason District Governmental Center, 6507 Columbia Pike in Annandale. The large dumpster is easily found in the parking lot, and accepts glass bottles any time. Light bulbs, window glass, and other glass items are not accepted, and should be wrapped and disposed in your regular trash.