We're aiming to shatter Australia's glass recycling process and mould it to fit within our circular economy roadmap.
Thousands of years ago glass was a prized material for royalty. Fast forward to today, and you likely encounter glass every day in the kitchen, on your way to work or even in the palm of your hand.
Glass recycling in Australia
In Australia, we consume about 1280 kilotonnes of glass packaging each year. Think jars, beer and wine bottles, and containers. In fact, we use glass so widely that we’re collecting more glass waste than we know what to do with. That’s why it’s important to recycle our glass waste rather than make glass from scratch.
In Australia, more than 80 per cent of glass used is for packaging food and drinks. Glass is a key component of windows, solar panels, electronics (such as device screens), medical technologies and in fibre optic cables that help give you faster internet.
Glass can go through an endless cycle of being melted and reshaped. Even after these recycling processes, glass still retains its sturdy structure.
Many countries are close to recycling 100 per cent of their glass. But in Australia, more than a quarter of the glass we consume becomes rubbish that goes to landfill.
Unfortunately, much of this glass is destined for landfill before it has been collected from your house! Even if you put glass in the right bin, breakages and contamination can deem this glass unrecyclable.
Contamination is where small pieces of glass are mixed together with materials like bottle caps, stones and ceramics. This makes them much harder to separate and more likely to end up in landfill.
Aiming for zero waste
In recent decades, there has been a significant increase in the way we use materials. This increase has resulted in more waste and more emissions globally.
Currently we’re working in a linear economy. Like a race, every product has a finish line. Once it crosses that line the next stop is landfill.
We’re aiming to transition into a circular economy. In this world there is no finish line and the lifecycle of a product is endless. A circular economy refers to a system of zero waste, where we would reuse, repair and recycle existing materials for as long as possible.
We are exploring research pathways in support of a circular economy. The aim is to reduce the total waste generated in Australia by 10 per cent per person by 2030. Australia is also aiming to achieve an 80 per cent average resource recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030.
Through the processes of sorting glass from contaminates, cleaning and colour sorting, recycling facilities can return glass to an almost brand new quality. This means more glass can be reused.
Unfortunately, most glass recyclers in Australia don’t yet have the technology for efficient sorting and cleaning. Of the 193 facilities, only 18 automate parts of the process using x-ray, camera or laser technologies. The rest sort glass by hand!
Container deposit schemes have been a great solution. They encourage you to return glass products – such as bottles – directly to a local facility. This allows the facility to clean and reuse the bottle straight away, helping avoid contamination and breakages in your recycling bin.
With future technologies on our side, we’re hoping to shift to a circular economy not only for glass, but plastics, metals and other recyclables.
This article is adapted from Double Helix issue 57, Improving Australia’s Glass Recycling by Montana de Meillon. It celebrates National Science Week and the International Year of Glass. Packed with news, activities, puzzles and comics, Double Helix is created for kids and sparks an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths. Grab a magazine subscription, a copy of this issue, or sign up for our free email newsletter Double Helix Extra.