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Close up view. A clear glass link which passes through five small beads made from a brown marmite jar. Link and beads have a frosted finish. The link hangs from a fine sterling silver chain.

Glass is one of those materials that it’s easy to feel smug about. It’s recyclable, right?  It goes into your recycling bin without any thought needed. It’s a million times easier than trying to figure out what plastics need to go where.

However it’s not all as good as it sounds. That wine bottle you carefully emptied and put in the bin doesn’t get to stay as a bottle. Neither do glass jars. Very little glass is reused.

The only glass that gets reused routinely rather than recycled are milk bottles. They’ll typically get used 25-30 times before they’re recycled. Even that seems low – the drinking glass I use every day has been in my life for more than a decade and it’s still going strong.

Recycling should be the last resort for any material. Refusing, reducing reusing – they all stop materials getting to the point where they’re recycled and turned into something else.

What happens to the glass in your recycling bin?

It gets sorted by colour.

It gets crushed – at that point it’s called cullet.

It gets cleaned.

It has new raw materials and colours are added if needed.

It gets melted and turned into jars and bottles.

It’s great that glass doesn’t just become landfill – and recycling glass saves using new raw materials. But taking a bottle and putting it through several processes and adding new raw materials to make another bottle doesn’t seem like the most efficient way of doing things. Especially when you think that once that bottle has been emptied it will go through the same process again and again.

Reusing glass for beads is only ever going to be a tiny part of the solution to this inefficient recycling. It’s a start – and it opens a conversation about why recycling isn’t the easy answer.

What happens to the glass which gets turned into beads?

Let’s start with where the glass comes from. Most of the glass I use comes from glass bottle and jars which we’ve bought for their contents. The exception to this is marmite – I’m not a fan, but the glass is gorgeous. I put a request on Trash Nothing, and now there a group of keen marmite lovers who keep bottles for me.

The glass gets cleaned, usually with a trip through the dishwasher. Any stubborn bits of label are removed.

The glass is broken into large chunks, and these are melted in a flame and pulled into long rods. The rods are melted and manipulated to make beads.

That’s where there’s a pause – because glass beads don’t get recycled when they’ve been worn a couple of times. They’re something which can last for decades – and sometimes a whole lot longer. Mistakes can be reworked, and the glass reused.

Why don’t lampworkers love reusing glass? There are a couple of things which make it tricky.

When I buy glass rods from a supplier I can be confident that the colours work together. I can mix colours together, adding dots and stripes. I can layer colours. I’ve got a whole rainbow of options.

Reusing glass is trickier. It’s more work. I must do several things to get to the point where I have glass rods to use. There’s no guarantee that glass from one bottle will be compatible with glass from another bottle. There isn’t the choice of colour. Many of the beautifully coloured bottles you see are made by adding a plastic film to cover clear glass.  

Reusing glass puts limitations in place. Sometimes that’s annoying. Sometimes it’s the spur to think harder and be more inventive. It’s a chance to be creative in a new way.

Reused glass will stay as part of my collections. I’ll be looking at ways of adding more colour, texture and layers over 2024 – so watch this space.

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