Today’s Solutions: February 08, 2023

Lately, and for obvious reasons, there’s been a lot of attention on figuring out what to do with all the plastic clogging up our oceans and waterways. While solving this problem is obviously important, the plastic issue also highlights an overarching problem, not necessarily with hard-to-recycle substances, but with wasteful human behaviors and habits.

For instance, glass is a material that can be recycled, yet so much of it still ends up in landfills. However, UK glassmaker Ian Hankey is on a mission to change this reality by pushing the glass industry to deal with its waste in a better way.

Glass is infinitely recyclable, but that doesn’t stop around 50 percent of household glass waste (also called “cullet”) from ending up in a landfill, churned into concrete, or incinerated. What makes this large number even more surprising is that the demand for high-quality cullet is consistently high.

If we add glazing and construction glass into the equation, the numbers are even less precise. According to the British Glass Confederation, the chemical additives in this type of glass make the recycling process more complicated, so it becomes easier to simply chuck it into the regular waste stream.

Hankey, the principal technician at Fab Lab at the Plymouth College of Art, hopes to transform the way cullet is handled with a solution he’s developed by studying 17th-century text and combining this wisdom with contemporary technology and modern farming methods.

After crowdfunding £10,000 for his Community Interest Company, the Upcycled Glass Project, Hankey and his collaborators (academics and glassmaking colleagues) will first target local waste in his home base of Devon.

While Hankey has not revealed the ins and outs of his custom process, he hopes that it can save old building glass from the landfills, and transform them into prized “art” glass, which is currently imported into the UK at £2,500 a ton.

“There are absolute mountains of this waste window glass, and nobody knows what to do with it,” Hankey explains. “None of the big glass companies want to get involved because it’s just too costly.”

However, Hankey explains that glass is quite simple. “It’s 70 percent sand, about 20 percent soda, which we get from plant ash, and the rest is stabilizers. I’m going to use waste glass as my starting point—my sand source—and refine it.”

He also hopes to create a small-scale recapture system that will gather waste CO2 from the glass production process. “At the end of it all, the only waste we create should be water,” he says.

“The eventual goal is to replicate this up and down the country and have lots of us chipping away at the waste glass mountains: small businesses with a massive environmental impact.”

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