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Changing the path forward for glass

Glass is adaptable for use in next-generation cars and buildings, and it's a powerful example for a circular economy.

Glass bottles have relatively high recycling rates.

Glass bottles have relatively high recycling rates.

This is the second of three pieces by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation about sustainability in industry, examining the opportunities and challenges facing various industrial sectors. The first piece explored plastic.

As a slew of natural disasters and an alarming intergovernmental report inject new urgency into global efforts to tackle climate change, one industry is poised to play an outsized role: glass.

In many ways, glass is already a poster child for the circular economy. Raw materials are plentiful with factories situated near end markets. Glass containers and other glass products are 100-percent recyclable. And the recycled-glass market is surging.

Now as countries and companies look beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to focus on growth, the glass industry can help them to rebuild sustainably. Glass is present in myriad products and its adaptability and affordability make it attractive for construction and manufacturing.

For example, glass can help improve the fuel efficiency of cars, a major source of carbon emissions, and other transport vehicles. When glass fiber is mixed with composites, it offers a reduced-weight approach for reinforcing automotive, aviation and other vehicle components, and by reducing their weight, it helps reduce fuel consumption.

In many ways, glass is already a poster child for the circular economy.

Another sector where glass is having an impact is in building and construction. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the sector in 2018 accounted for more than one-third of global energy use and energy- and process-related CO2 emissions. Glass windows, doors and roofs can permit or inhibit the transmission of heat and light, decreasing emissions from the use of heating, cooling and lighting systems.

At the same time, the glass industry needs to address its own sustainability challenges. It has come a long way, decreasing the amount of CO2 per ton of melted glass by 69 percent between 1960 and 2010, according to Glass for Europe. The industry has also greatly reduced the amount of waste going into landfill through recycling, with Allied Market Research predicting that the global recycled glass market will reach $5.5 billion by 2025 from $3.5 billion in 2017. The collection of waste glass can be further improved to enhance recycle rates and support the industry to achieve a truly circular economy.

Glass manufacturers are also seeking to reduce the environmental impact of production and use through redesign. Take Turkey's Sisecam, a producer of all kinds of glass and a client of the International Finance Corporation (IFC). By simply changing a container's design, Sisecam reduced greenhouse gas emissions on one bottle type by 14 percent. That lighter packaging can be a boon to other industries that use those bottles by reducing transport-related costs and emissions.

The collection of waste glass can be further improved to enhance recycle rates and support the industry to achieve a truly circular economy.

The industry must continue to reduce emissions. The transformation of silica (sand) and other ingredients into glass demands extremely high temperatures and energy to heat up furnaces. The process emits byproducts including carbon dioxide, and improvements in the industry remain uneven.

IFC, which supports the development of the private sector in emerging markets, is providing capital and advisory services to glass manufacturers to help them strengthen sustainability. Investments are financing the adoption of technologies to reduce emissions and energy use, increased use of recycled glass in production, and development of more sustainable products, among others.

Glass producers are exploring technologies such as carbon capture to reduce emissions. Research is also ongoing into the use of carbon-neutral energy sources such as green hydrogen and green electricity, with the first "furnace of the future" set to be completed by 2022. This project by European container glass manufacturers will be the world’s first, large-scale hybrid electric furnace, running on 80 percent green electricity, according to FEVE, the European Container Glass Federation. German glass makers, meanwhile, are working with BV Glas, the central organization for Germany's glass industry, to explore using hydrogen as a fuel for melting glass.

"Every climate-neutral production project is an important step towards new approaches in glass manufacturing that will help us achieve the long-term aim of net-zero industrial emissions," Johann Overath, BV Glas's director general, told Glass International.

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