Your Glass Bottle Could End Up in a Cape Cod Road - and That's a Good Thing

May 14, 2019

Reverse vending machines at Teaticket Market in Falmouth are multi-taskers: they read the bottle's barcode, crush it, and keep an inventory for both the customer and the shop owner.
Credit Kathryn Eident / WCAI-FM

Ever take a close look inside your fridge? That might be a scary prospect. But, what’s in there? A half-empty pickle jar? A few bottles of beer? Until last year, that glass inside your fridge was destined to come back as another container—as long as you recycled or redeemed it.

But when the state’s only glass bottle manufacturer suddenly closed last spring, all that changed.

This story is part 2 in our series, The Big Blue Bin: Following the Path of Cape Cod's Recycling.

Eric McMasters stands in front of a bank of redemption machines at Teaticket Market, the liquor and convenience store he manages in Falmouth.

The machines are designed to multi-task: they can read the bottle’s barcode, crush it, account for what the customer is owed, and what the store will be reimbursed. The machines are sleek, ever-evolving, and they’re busy collecting bins filled with bottles and cans.

“We do, I would say, anywhere between 1,500 to 2,000 pieces total on the machines per day, and in the summertime that drastically increases,” he said.

McMasters says the machines offer a two-fold benefit. They make people feel good about helping the environment. They’re also good for business.

We do still have the people that will come back with even the six-pack they have they bought and they’ll feed the six-pack through and get another one,” he said. “It just kind of cancels their bottle deposit and they like that.”

And when the machines fill up, the company that makes them ensures the bottles and cans are and sent off to be recycled into new beverage containers again, making it easy for both customers and local stores.

“It’s pretty quick, pretty painless,” he said.

A strong state bottle deposit law has made this situation possible, and has since the 1990s. Brooke Nash, Branch Chief of the Municipal Waste Reduction Program at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, says the system captures about 100-thousand tons of redeemable glass bottles each year, which until last year, went to the state’s only bottle manufacturer. But then that company shut down.

“More beer is being packaged in cans, so they couldn’t make the economics work for keeping this open in Milford where our glass had been going for many, many decades,” she said.  

Not a big deal for glass deposit bottles, which the beverage companies are required to recycle. Those now go out of state to factories in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

But when it comes to those old pickle and jelly jars, they’ve been piling up. When the factory closed, recycling of condiment and other glass containers basically stopped in Massachusetts.

In Dennis, transfer station foreman Chris Contonio says at first, the pile of glass was a headache. It’s illegal to dump it in a landfill, and the cost to send glass off-Cape for recycling soared. 

Dennis DPW Foreman Chad Contonio stands in front of a container of glass that will be crushed into processed glass aggregate, or PGA.
Credit Kathryn Eident / WCAI-FM

“At one point when I first started, basically it was a wash,” he said. “[Now], people are paying in excess of $80 a ton.

Contonio looks at the pile today, though, and is excited.

Soon, thanks to a state grant, his transfer station will become a regional depot for used glass, and host to a traveling machine that will grind it down into what’s called ‘processed glass aggregate’. When it’s finished, it looks kind of like pebbly sand, and, Contonio said, it will have a lot of uses for Cape towns.

“It’s not sharp, and basically you can use it as stone or aggregate to do drainage projects and mix it in under gravel,” he explained. “Technically, it wouldn’t be on top of the road, it’s going to be underneath the road, and it’s only going to be 10% mixed in with what they’re going to use.”

It will cost $60 a ton to process it, with each town taking back what it brings in. The facility is one of four funded by the state, and it’s set to open soon.  So far, three Cape towns have signed on to the program in addition to Dennis; others are considering it.

It’s a solution to the close to 100-thousand tons of non-redeemable glass Massachusetts residents recycle each year, but is it truly recycling?

“It’s not it's not a closed loop. It's not becoming another bottle or jar but, I don't know,” Nash said. “I  guess I'd probably say it's reuse as opposed to true recycling, since recycling typically means it's made back into another product.”

But she says, she’s proud the state will soon be reusing the glass that goes into recycling bins. Because, she says, without the infrastructure to actually recycle the glass, reuse is perhaps the best we can do.