Indiana’s roots in the glass industry run deep, literally. Coca-Cola’s iconic glass bottle was invented in 1915 in Terre Haute, Indiana by the Root Glass Company—and they weren’t the only Hoosier glass business. Indiana was actually the 2nd-most producing glass state in the United States during the early 1900s.
From its sweet beginnings to the rise of recycling, glass has played an important role in the development of the circular economy in Indiana, and its story is still unfolding.
In the Beginning
Water, bottled in glass, has been around since the 1700s. But bottling carbonated water in glass, such as soft drinks, was considerably more challenging due to the high pressure of the carbonation. Although some carbonated beverages were indeed bottled, these bottles had a tendency to, well, explode. That is perhaps not the healthiest outcome, given that the earliest carbonated beverages were marketed as health tonics.
In the mid 1800s, scientists discovered a new way to dissolve carbon dioxide into water, which solved the exploding bottle problem and allowed them to bottle more beverages in glass, but this technology wasn’t used for soda right away. Until the early 1900s, Americans patronized soda fountains, where soda syrup was mixed with carbonated water directly at the establishment in reusable glasses. This was a great system for preventing waste, but not the most convenient.
The Rise of Indiana's Glass Industry
In the 1890s, companies began bottling Coca-Cola and other sodas to make them more portable. As the soda industry took off, the demand for glass bottles increased. The already flourishing bottle manufacturing industry in Indiana began booming. The first Indiana facility specifically for Coca-Cola began bottling beverages in 1904, and there were 15 Coca-Cola bottling plants across the state by 1915. These facilities used a bottle refill system, where soda bottles were brought back to the same facility and refilled.
Indiana’s glass manufacturing went well beyond soda pop. Indiana dominated many other kinds of glass production, from food and beverage containers to lamps.
At one point, Indiana alone was producing 70% of the fruit jars, half of liquor bottles, and half of lamp globes made in the entire country.
In addition to Coca-Cola products, Indiana manufacturers made glass for other prominent companies such as Ball and Owens-Corning, which makes fiberglass products.
From Refill to Recycling
In the early days, we placed a high value on glass to make sure it was collected and used again. But today, glass isn’t even universally accepted in curbside recycling programs. So, why did we move away from reusing glass consistently? And how did we get to the current glass recycling system? The reasons are related to changes in supply and demand and consumer needs.
Early Glass Usage
In the early days, making glass was expensive, so manufacturers and retailers designed them for durability and created a system for collection in order to refill and reuse them. Also at this time, soda pop and other beverages were typically served at bars and restaurants rather than at grocery stores for people to drink at home. Beverages were either served from fountains using washable dishware or in bottles that were returned to the manufacturer for wash and reuse. This was an efficient system that worked well and prevented glass from going to waste.
World Wars and Glass Demand
The two World Wars increased demand on raw materials used to create military goods, which caused shortages of many commodities. To support war efforts, the US government encouraged individuals across the country to reduce their consumption of these important raw materials, increasing the emphasis on reusability and using resources efficiently. Glass and metals were included in this—in fact, the metal shortages encouraged the use of glass containers, which were durable, easy to clean, and reusable endlessly by households and businesses alike. Bottle deposits were also very common during this period, because it was cheaper for businesses to pay a deposit and refill bottles rather than make new glass in light of supply shortages.
Post WWII & Disposability
When the World Wars ended, US consumption patterns changed. The increase in available raw materials, manufacturing boom, and economic growth of the middle class promoted a new era of consumer demand and disposability. Goods were no longer rationed, making it cheaper and easier for businesses to make products, and consumers now had disposable income to purchase those goods. Consumerism was born. At the same time, the beverage distribution system began shifting away from on-premise consumption and towards portable and disposable packaging. Refill systems became less appealing and waste grew exponentially as more containers were thrown out rather than refilled or reused.
The Beginnings of Glass Recycling
The environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s exposed the waste problems in the US and led to the era of recycling in the 1980s. Initially, glass recycling was offered in many places, because of the benefits of substituting recycled glass when making new containers. However, as the container industry expanded, glass manufacturing (and therefore recycling), began to shift. Glass has many benefits, but in some formats, struggles to compete with lightweight and inexpensive plastic containers. Further, recycling programs shifted away from making consumers separate glass from other materials and, instead, allowed them to put everything in one bin. This proved to be tricky for glass recycling because glass is heavy, breaks, and damages recycling machinery. As a result, some places in Indiana cannot recycle it.
The Future: Circularity
So, where do we go from here? Indiana has both challenges and opportunities for glass recycling. Today, Indiana is still one of the top glass manufacturing states demanding recycled materials in the US. At the same time, we lack enough capacity to collect glass and get it ready for recycling.
The benefits of glass in the circular economy are clear—glass is non-toxic, endlessly recyclable, durable, and even reusable. But because glass is challenging to collect and process, we need updates to our system to create an efficient circular supply chain for glass recycling.
Circular Indiana is advocating on your behalf to drive policy that increases recycling for glass (and all materials!). We recently helped inform recent legislation that created the Central Indiana Waste Diversion Pilot Project, which unlocked an additional $4 million in funding for recycling infrastructure improvements in Central Indiana.
You Can Help Fix Glass Recycling
There is still work to do for glass recycling and circular advocacy in Indiana, and we need your help! Circular Indiana relies on funding from readers like you. If you enjoyed this article, make your gift today to help us strengthen the circular economy in Indiana and improve glass recycling statewide!