Breaking the glass ceiling

Written by: Baudouin Ska | Published:

Glass is the perfect material for a circular economy because it can be permanently recycled without loss of quality. The only thing holding it back is inconsistent collection rates, writes Baudouin Ska, secretary general of FERVER, the European Federation of Glass Recyclers

Permanent materials are defined as those whose inherent properties do not change during use and regardless of repeated recycling into new products. Their recycling does not necessarily require the addition of primary material or additives to enable the basic material function/properties.

Glass is a more than the perfect material fulfilling that definition: not only is the recycling of glass unlimited, but there is, during the recycling process, no loss of material. Indeed, contaminants are extracted to produce each time a new and perfectly pure product. Moreover, the production of new glass from recycled glass instead of raw materials saves energy and limits the CO2 emissions, as the melting point of used glass (the so-called furnace-ready cullet) is lower than that of sand. That is the reason why glass has been celebrated since the fundamental revision of the European waste legislation in 2008 (Directive 2008/98/EC).

Glass fulfils the requirements of the waste hierarchy (prevention, re-use, recycling, disposal). It is also the only waste stream to have developed European End-of-Waste (EoW) status without difficulty or delay (Commission Regulation (EU) No 1179/2012) contrary to what was the case for the few other streams with such status: scrap from iron, steel aluminium and copper.

No longer waste but a product

That means glass waste, after treatment by recyclers, reaches such a high quality that it is no longer classified as waste but as a real product, able to enter directly into the production process of new glass.

Less than three years after the entry into force of the Regulation on End-of-Waste glass, 90% of what goes into the production process ends up as furnace-ready cullet, thus fulfilling its status criterion.

In order to achieve this great score, European glass recyclers have made huge investments and devoted great energy.

FERVER, the European Federation of Glass Recyclers, is 12 years old this year, although some members have more than 20 years’ experience. FERVER members have a presence in 18 European and non-European countries, managing 70 sites recycling flat glass, packaging glass or both, and employing more than 2,000 people.

These members recycle about 70% of Europe’s glass packaging. They return more than 98% to glass factories, which remelt it into new glass products. Of this 98%, 90% is high quality EoW. Public statistics are limited, covering only the recycling of municipal glass packaging. The data available on the Eurostat website is based on the reports of national take-back schemes and is not completely reliable. FERVER has therefore started to collate its own data.

Circular economy: Are the new rules ambitious?

The European Commission repealed its initial legislative text on the circular economy at the beginning of 2015, arguing that it was not ambitious enough. The new Circular Economy Package, published at the end of last year, is now under evaluation by the European Parliament and Council. The new version is better from several points of view, clarifying how the recycling rates must be calculated: currently, countries have had the choice of four methods.

In the future, only one method will be in force, enabling reliable comparisons between countries. Some proposals are less clear, making it difficult to ensure a real level playing field. Just one example about glass: the definition of ‘recycling’ differs in function from the type of glass: a glass bottle has to be really recycled, which means re-introduced into a production process; but a car window can be recovered – in other words, it has only to be ‘used’ as a material for a large range of purposes (only energy recovery is excluded); a window of a building is formally considered as recycled, even in the case of backfilling.

Admittedly, the new package gives clear rules for the recycling of packaging, but it is a missed opportunity for end-of-life vehicles and for construction and demolition waste, since there are no clear rules proposed for mandatory selective dismantling, collection and recycling of the glass fraction. Together, both sectors represent a yearly potential of more than two million tons.

Recycling rates: all but uniform

Even if, as mentioned earlier, the Eurostat data has to be taken with the necessary precautions, statistics clearly show that there are big differences between member states regarding the recycling rates of municipal packaging glass.

That is one of the reasons FERVER is promoting its membership to countries where the recycling rates are weak. It recently welcomed members from Hungary, Poland and Turkey, and contacts are ongoing with potential members in Croatia and even Russia.By sharing its experience with these new members, we are helping them develop their business in the right way. FERVER is also assisting them in their contacts with local authorities and take-back schemes, in order to develop a legal framework and efficient enforcement at local level.

Challenges for the future

At a time when saving energy and limiting CO2 emissions are a priority, the glass industry is demanding ever more furnace-ready cullet. Logically, that means the quality requirements will become more severe (higher ratio furnace-ready cullet to raw materials). FERVER members are permanently investing in new techniques in order to achieve these requirements. Quality control and representative sampling are crucial, and FERVER is working on a statistical approach in order to trust the analytical results of the samples taken before, during and after delivery to glass factories.

It is also in contact with glass producers as well as users. Due to the variation in colour, labels, shape, closures, etc, some is rejected as a non-glass fraction in the sorting process.

While sorting techniques are evolving that try to recognise the glass hidden behind a piece of paper, plastic, metal, etc, FERVER members are in dialogue with producers and users to improve the eco-design of packaging.

Our catalogue of best examples of ‘sustainable packaging’ serves as a basis for that constructive dialogue.

For more information on the European Federation of Glass Recyclers,

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