The Blount County Highway Department held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the glass recycling mill at its operations center Thursday, Nov. 17. Officials say that the mill could add years to the local landfill’s lifespan, but that it also represents “an investment in the future.”
Though the highway department began accepting glass recycling in July, Thursday marked the official opening of the mill to the public. Located a few hundred yards from a glass recycling bin on Levi Street, the mill takes glass — any type other than laminated safety glass — and pulverizes it, transforming it into products that can look like powder or gravel.
Highway department staff say that the process shifts something expensive — recycling glass — into a way of saving taxpayer dollars, as the department can use the recycled materials for lane striping, pipe bedding and highway repairs, among other purposes.
Having a glass mill helps address two interlinked issues. Glass recycling is costly, firstly. It’s heavy, which makes it more expensive to transport than other recyclable materials, and its typically of little value. As such, it can be difficult to find ways of disposing of it, beyond a trash bin. The cities of Alcoa and Maryville both discontinued their glass recycling programs in 2017, citing damage to equipment and cost.
But the cost of tossing glass in the trash is also considerable. As more glass is thrown away, the landfill’s lifespan shortens and inches closer to its total capacity.
During the summer, Headrick described the effect of glass waste on the landfill as “monstrous,” and noted that glass currently accounts for a major portion of its contents. Being able to recycle the glass would extend the landfill’s usability by years, he said.
Other officials echoed Headrick’s comments. Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell told The Daily Times, “When you start talking about the life of a landfill, you’re talking in 25-, 50-, 100-year terms. Because if you lose your landfill, to reestablish another location is very difficult. Sometimes impossible.” He added, “This is the kind of thing that will affect citizens 60 and 75 years from now. They may never remember what we did today, but they’ll appreciate the fact that they can still use their landfill.”
‘A lengthy process’
Headrick said that he became aware of the possibilities of glass recycling about five years ago. The process of acquiring a glass mill has nonetheless been a lengthy one for the department. He noted that the county commission was set to discuss the mill around the spring of 2020, as the pandemic emerged in the U.S.
The pandemic and attendant disruptions to local government slowed the approval process. But the wait was worth it, he said. Beyond lengthening the landfill’s lifespan, the mill has helped put Blount County at the forefront of recycling initiatives in state and within the broader region.
Jim Cox, operations manager for the highway department, said that it currently collects around three to four loads of glass per week from the Levi Street bin; each load amounts to about a thousand pounds of glass. That’s well within the mill’s processing power, though Cox told The Daily Times that he expects the volume of glass collected to increase as people become more aware of the program.
During the ceremony, Headrick summed up his department’s stance on the mill when he said, “Let’s use a slogan of the mayor’s and his team: let’s be Blount. In being Blount, we need to look out and try to preserve our community, our landfills, and last, but not least, the planet.”