Get talking: glass in the circular economy

Materials World magazine
31 Mar 2017

Adrian Curry discusses the importance of sustainable operations and the role of glass in the UK.

NASA recently announced that 2016 was the warmest year on record, setting a new high for the third consecutive year. With human activity widely agreed to be a key driver of global warming, there is ever more pressure on manufacturers and consumers to reduce their carbon footprints.

In Europe, it has been suggested that the implementation of a truly circular economy, in which all products are used and then returned to the supply chain, rather than being sent to landfill, could reduce carbon emissions by around 70% over the next two decades. To support this, the international community has set some ambitious environmental goals to bring about progressive changes in the way industries operate. The Paris Climate Conference (COP21), for example, saw business executives and political delegates from more than 170 countries come together and commit to rapidly reduce their CO2 output.

The European Union is also updating its waste and recycling legislation in the form of its new Circular Economy Package, which will increase general recycling targets to 70% by 2030. If this passes into EU law before the UK has formally left the Union, the UK is likely to adopt any agreed measures as its own. In addition, the British Standards Institute is drawing up the world’s first Circular Economy Standards – scalable guidelines that can be followed by businesses of different sizes around the world to help them boost sustainability. 

There are also signs that the action being taken by policymakers across Europe is being supported by the general population, particularly when it comes to glass. In November 2016, the European Container Glass Federation released its latest recycling figures for EU member countries, producing some very positive results. The report found that more than 74% of glass bottles being produced across Europe were being recycled. Over 11.6 million tonnes of glass were collected throughout the EU in one year – up 3.4% on the previous 12 months. 

Glass – a circular model

Glass is still a unique commodity in today’s materials market, despite it having been around for thousands of years. Used every day throughout the built environment and by billions of people, it is a substance that comes with countless advantages for both consumers and the environment. As it is 100% recyclable, glass can be melted down and remoulded an infinite number of times. The container glass industry has the potential to provide a perfect example of a scalable circular economy in action.

But despite this, there is still work to be done in the glass industry to close the loop in its circular economy, especially in the UK, where 32% of all glass being produced is still not being recycled. It has also recently been reported that British household waste rejected for recycling has increased more than 80% in the last five years, due to material ending up in the wrong bins (see Materials World, October 2016, page 14). This is something that we in the glass sector are particularly concerned about, as it has resulted in a significant reduction in the amount and quality of usable cullet – the recycled glass used to make containers.

Focus on sustainability

A 2017 study by Aldersgate Group, UK, claims that increased levels of resource efficiency could boost the UK’s economy by more than £80 billion by 2030. A current focus for British Glass is to help manufacturers and consumers develop more circular ways of working and increase their levels of sustainability. This, in turn, will lead to a more prosperous nation and support Britain in meeting its environmental obligations – these include slashing our emissions by 57% by 2030 on 1990s levels, and by 80% by 2050. 

Unfortunately, according to the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change, the country is nowhere near meeting that level. With this in mind, it is becoming increasingly important that British industry places greater focus on the long-term environmental impact of all products entering the global marketplace as well as their entire lifecycle. 

The glass sector is paving the way for other industries looking to adopt circular modes of operations. By making use of more sustainable and recyclable materials and by increasing resource efficiency, we can work together to close the loop in Britain’s fledgling circular economy.

Adrian Curry is Managing Director at glass container manufacturer Encirc, UK, and has recently been appointed president of industry body, British Glass.