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Recycling glass in Montana is a difficult and complicated proposition at best. In fact, the Target store in Missoula is the only retailer in the state with a glass bottle recycling program, and even there, a large quantity of the glass that is dropped off for recycling ends up at the Missoula landfill.

That’s because recycling loads that are contaminated with other materials are not eligible for recycling. Trash, plastic bottles, bottle caps, aluminum cans, cardboard boxes and plastic bags are all considered contaminants, according to Target spokesperson Jessica Stevens.

Only clean glass containers with no caps, lids or corks are accepted.

“We are aware that many of the recycling loads are, in fact, too contaminated to recycle,” she said in a statement. “We ask that guests follow correct recycling guidelines to know which materials are accepted for recycling and which materials contaminate a load.”

Target has posted signs on the recycling bins that read: “If any contaminates are found in the container, the entire container is taken to a landfill, negating the entire recycling program.”

The bins, which are large enough to potentially take glass loads from dozens or even hundreds of different drop-offs, are effectively ruined if even one person forgets to remove a piece of cardboard or plastic.

Target has told the Missoulian in the past that clean loads of glass are taken in empty delivery trucks to recycling centers in Oregon to be ground up and used in road beds. The Target public relations department did not return repeated emails or calls from the Missoulian on Friday requesting clarification on exactly what percentage of the glass loads are too contaminated to recycle or exactly how clean glass is recycled.

Max Bauer, the municipal manager at Republic Services of Montana, a company that provides garbage collection, disposal and recycling services in Missoula, declined to comment on any specifics regarding Target’s arrangement with his company.

However, he did say that in general, glass recycling in Montana just isn’t feasible.

“Over the years, glass has just been a bad deal,” he said. “There are no markets close, and it’s heavy and expensive to ship. Glass is cheap, sand is cheap, it’s not worth it. People have tried all kinds of programs. A few years ago we collected glass from UM and collected that for free, we just ate the cost. It didn’t work out.”

There are no municipal glass recycling programs in the state either, according to Bauer, so many people have previously tried various innovative ways to recycle glass in Missoula.

“There was a guy that tried to crush it for driveways, there’s been all kinds of deals,” he said. “Our company policy is that unless it’s a sustainable program, with markets and not funded with grants, we are not going to participate.”

Republic Services has a blue bag program where people can put a mixture of approved recyclable products in together, called co-mingling, and leave it to get sorted. They also allow people to put co-mingled recyclables, not including glass, in big blue bins.

“If somebody puts glass in the blue bags, we put a note in at the customer’s location and leave it,” Bauer explained. “If commercial recyclers put glass in we just have to bury the whole load, because OSHA would be on us in a heartbeat if we had people in there picking out broken glass. The whole thing with recycling is don’t contaminate it with garbage. People have learned with cardboard. It just takes a long time for people to get with it and learn it.”

Bauer said that since the Missoulian ran a letter to the editor from a Stevensville woman who learned from Republic Services truck drivers that the glass at Target was going to the dump, he’s been contacted by staunch recyclers with a lot of questions.

“People get confused, people get mad,” he said. “We take cardboard, plastic, aluminum and other materials, but not glass. We bail stuff and send it to big recycling centers in Seattle. Nobody in Montana can afford to run one of those. They are $25 million facilities. They are able to take a lot more materials coming in because there is no glass. Glass ruins everything because you can’t put it in there.”

Bauer said that single-stream recycling, where the sorting is done at the recycling center, is the next big thing.

“You just bale it, and the big center has lasers and everything to sort it and clean it,” he said. “It’s really high-tech. They can still take glass in Seattle. But glass is a problem to recycle in the U.S. Everyone wants to recycle it but it’s the heaviest of all the materials and it’s dangerous when it breaks. There’s no other option for the glass when you factor in shipping costs.”

Bauer said he was approached by the owner of the Ten Spoon Winery in Missoula about recycling glass wine bottles.

“On the surface it looked like a slick deal, but we figured it would take over a year to fill a rail car,” he recalled. “The cost was astronomical. We looked at every possibility.”

Bayern Brewing in Missoula has been recycling its own glass since 2010. Consumers who purchase one of the company’s Ecopacks can return bottles to the brewery to get a refund, and the bottles are reused. The bottles must be standard brown 12-ounce bottles with no chips or garbage inside, and they must not have twist-off threading or embossing on the exterior.

“We have the only bottle-washing machine in the country,” said Bayern spokesman Jared Spiker. “It strips the label and everything off and we fill them back up again.”

I.E. Recycling in Missoula also offers the services of an industrial-grade glass pulverizer that can crush clean glass into an aggregate product for use in building or road materials. Calls to the company were not returned as of press time.

The state owns a glass crusher that’s used to go around the state and crush glass, but now it’s for sale because it produced giant piles of crushed glass that were never used, he said.

“The city of Livingston put in a crusher a few years ago but they aren’t taking glass anymore,” Bauer said. “They couldn’t get rid of it. There’s no market. Years ago we used to ship certain glass to the Coors brewery in Colorado. We started out losing a couple bucks a ton on that, and then we were losing $30-$40 a ton, and on glass, it doesn’t take long to run up a deficit. That’s the trouble with all our stuff, it goes to the coast. All our cardboard and aluminum goes to the coast by freight. We recycle plastic and ship it out to the coast. If glass got into the plastic and gets crushed, the whole bale goes into the trash. Contamination is a problem.”

Bauer, who sits on a Department of Environmental Quality advisory council, said that there are regulations that prevent crushed glass from being used in septic systems for government buildings.

“We could substitute it for the gravel in a septic system,” he explained. “It would work for private systems, but they wouldn’t allow it for government buildings. There was a movement to get that changed but it never happened.”

Over the years, Bauer said he has learned more about glass recycling than he ever could have imagined. He sees no easy answers in sight.

“It’s not that everybody hasn’t tried to do something, but there’s just not a good answer yet,” he said.

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at david.erickson@missoulian.com.

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Business Reporter

Business writer at The Missoulian.