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Glass recycling pickup has ended across NoVA. Enter the Purple Can Club.

Here’s everything you need to know about the new rules and practices effecting glass recycling in Northern Virginia.

cartoon drawing of people putting cans and glass in purple recycling container
Illustration by James Boyle

Empty glass container? You can toss that in recycling. Well, you can toss it into the purple, glass-only recycling container located somewhere around town. Or into your trash can. You can’t, however, throw it into your blue bin for curbside pickup like your paper and plastic waste, a change that took effect across the region in August.

In place of curbside pickup is the Purple Can Club, the new method for NoVA residents to recycle their glass waste. The Purple Can Club consists of 24 purple, glass-only drop-off containers that can be found across the region. The glass is then brought to Fairfax County’s processing plant (nicknamed “Big Blue” for its blue color and large size) in Lorton where it is crushed into sand and gravel for use in a variety of projects, including pipe bedding and backfill, which protects pipes in new infrastructures.

When the change in curbside recycling policies was announced in a number of NoVA counties, it caused an uproar. But, say local officials, the decision to remove glass from the single-stream recycling programs in Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties, as well as Alexandria, was approved in order to increase recycling—not reduce it. “We had to separate the glass in order to get it really recycled, and that’s why we started the Purple Can Club,” says Erik Grabowsky, chief of Solid Waste Bureau in Arlington County government’s Department of Environmental Services. The Purple Can Club is a regional partnership between Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax and Prince William counties, as well as the town of Vienna.

“Now that we are getting the material, we’re actually able to recycle it, rather than telling people it’s being recycled when it wasn’t,” says Grabowsky.

In the single-stream system (in which all paper fibers, plastics, metals and other containers are mixed, instead of being sorted), broken glass was contaminating other recyclable materials and causing issues for the machines at the material recovery facilities.

“When you put your bin at home on the curbside, and you put in glass with everything else that’s recyclable, a truck comes by and dumps it into a truck, which transports it to the material recovery facility,” says Eric Forbes, director of engineering and environmental compliance for Fairfax County’s Solid Waste Management. “Through that handling process, evidently, glass breaks. When that glass breaks, all of those little pieces of glass then stick to everything else, causing contamination.”

Recycling contamination has become a big problem for the U.S. over the past two years since China, the largest customer of recycled material, imposed strict standards on the quality of materials, meaning it was accepting less waste from the U.S. and contamination of recyclable materials was now a home front problem.

Because of the changes set in place by China, there was also a drop in the market value of glass recyclables, resulting in recycling centers depositing glass in landfills rather than forwarding them on to recycling facilities. “The big change happened when China suggested that it wasn’t going to accept materials from the U.S. anymore because of contaminations,” explains Forbes. “The fact that China closed its doors meant the market, domestically, was flooded with more material now. There’s more supply, less demand.”

To counteract the contamination, Northern Virginia’s Purple Can Club turns glass either into sand or peasized gravel for construction projects, or ships it to a glass processor in North Carolina that turns glass into aggregate. “Fairfax County is shipping some of it down to Wilson, North Carolina,” says Grabowsky. “Where now it’s truly being recycled. Some of it gets turned back into glass bottles and some into fiberglass.”

Despite the reduced convenience, so far, the new recycling logistics seem to be working.

As of press time, Arlington County, for example, has seen a dramatic increase in residents participating in the Purple Can Club. “To date, we’ve collected 380 tons of glass. In October, we got 85.69 tons, which was doubled from the month before,” says Grabowsky.

As a result, in Arlington County, the non-glass contamination rate was down to 8.2% in October, in comparison to 20.7% in April. “Those are just really good statistics,” he says. “Arlington is doing much better than the norm (15-25% contamination) and it allows us to manage our recyclables differently. If we’re generating a third of the residue that other communities are, it just makes our overall value of our commodity stream higher. In addition to making aggregate out of the glass, a lot of glass is now being turned back into bottles and into insulation. That’s positive news.”


Wishful Recycling Be Gone

Don’t just toss any glass into purple containers to feel good. Here’s what you can and can’t recycle in the Purple Can Club.

Recyclable:

All colors of clean glass bottles and jars are accepted in the purple containers. They must be empty, washed of any food waste and dry.

Non-Recyclable:

• Plastic bags
• Windows
• Lamps
• Light bulbs
• Ceramics
• Porcelain
• Mirrors
• Sheet Glass
• Mixed materials (for example, don’t leave a metal lid on a glass jar)

Where to Find the Purple Can Club

This post originally appeared in our January 2020 print issue. For more news you need to know, subscribe to our e-newsletters.

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