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Glass Is not Trash

Of course maybe this is wrong,
But don’t believe it: a happiness exists,
All right, I have seen it for myself,
Touched it, touched the woman
Who with her daughter together keep
Ammonia in Mason jars by the side window.

−Alberto Ríos, from “Mason Jars by the Window”

When I was growing up, my mom never threw away glass jars. Our pantry had a shelf full of empty, clean jars of every size and shape—jars that had once contained spaghetti sauce, artichokes or jam—that we reused to hold everything from leftover soup, homemade trail mix and loose tea to powdered laundry detergent, extra buttons, and cotton balls. In the BVI, reusing glass jars is practical because it keeps the otherwise ubiquitous humidity and insects out of perishables.

Another advantage to using glass instead of plastic containers for food storage is that no chemicals leach into food from glass, whereas chemicals from plastic containers can end up in our bodies. Glass jars can also be used as bedside water decanters—cups without any covering are potential mosquito breeding sites. Gross. Nobody wants to drink mosquito larvae. But reusing jars isn’t going to solve the problem of the tonnes of glass waste received at the Pockwood Pond incinerator each year.

According to the waste hierarchy, consumers should consider reusing a product before recycling it, and Charlotte McDevitt, director of Green VI, seeks methods to reuse and recycle glass waste in the BVI. Her goal is to have glass entirely removed from the BVI’s waste stream. According to McDevitt’s “Glass Project Implementation: Marina Strategy,” the problem with incinerating glass is that tiny bits of glass melt and stick to the sides of the incinerator, and then the incinerator must be shut down for twenty days each year when the Solid Waste Department’s staff manually chips glass from the walls, exposing them to dangerous toxins and causing a waste backup at the dump.

Charlotte McDevitt among hills of glass in Sea Cows Bay. Photo by Nick Cunha.

The first phase in Green VI’s plan to remove glass from the waste stream involves targeting the marinas. Using the marinas as a starting point for the glass recycling project makes sense because most charter visitors come from countries where recycling programmes or container deposit laws have been in place for years. Denmark, for example, produces 98% refillable bottles with 98% of the population taking their bottles back to be reused, according to Heather Rogers, director of the film Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. When visitors from abroad come to the BVI, they are often disappointed that the territory does not offer the recycling option. With the introduction of the bins at the marinas, the BVI will start to build a greener reputation.

While Ms. McDevitt’s immediate priority seems to be keeping glass out of the incinerator, she is concerned about what to do with the glass once it’s collected from the marinas. “I want to show that glass waste is a resource,” Ms. McDevitt said at a meeting about the marina pilot project. She’d ultimately like to see a glass furnace built in the territory and hire a glassblower to train apprentices here how to use it. This project could spark a new industry for the BVI and a unique, local art. The glassblowers could produce “functional as well as artsy things—tiles, fittings for lights,” she added. She also mentioned other uses for the glass: “glass and concrete applications around piping, base road, roads and sidewalks, and special concrete finishes, but that’s more of an engineering project.” She continued, “We’re exploring on-island applications and partnering with neighbouring islands to reduce shipping costs for recyclables.”

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According to The Small Islands Voice, the Bequia Tourism Association in St Vincent and the Grenadines asked the Bequia Community High School’s Sandwatch chapter to “develop the idea of using garbage to collect garbage.” Combining crushed glass and cement, the group created a prototype garbage bin. The BVI could do the same thing. Instead of buying recycling bins, bins that will eventually become garbage themselves, attractive bins could be constructed using the crushed glass that’s already collected.

The June 2009 issue of Property Guide featured another way to use cullet. A company in California fabricates eye-catching, durable countertops from crushed, post-consumer glass. Each 9’x5’ countertop reuses approximately 550 pounds of glass (about 1,000 glass bottles). That same idea can be employed for terrazzo flooring. These environmentally sustainable floors can now be composed from glass aggregate and cement or epoxy. Once pressed and polished, terrazzo surfaces sparkle and gleam.

My hometown, Baltimore, Maryland, has a few roads paved with glassphalt—a hot-mix asphalt where a percentage of the rock or sand aggregate is replaced by crushed glass. A former mayor wanted all the city streets paved with the substance, which twinkles as if sprinkled with gemstones, as part of the city’s renaissance in the 1970s, but he came up against problems with glass supply. A March 2000 City Paper article titled “All That Glitters is Not Road,” quotes Brian Dolan, president of the Maryland Asphalt Association: “’Supply of fresh glass, that's the largest problem…There used to be a lot of milk bottles and soda bottles. The sources aren't readily available today as they once were.’” The BVI, it seems, has plenty of glass to pave the roads. And all the sparkling, glass-infused surfaces—from garbage bins to countertops to roads would complement the glittering sea. 

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