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Driving on broken glass

Throwing bottles into landfills wastes a resource
June 19, 2019
By Maeve Haldane

Lighthouses Lighthouses, Alice Jarry with Vincent Evrard, 2017. Kinetic installation, variable dimensions, recycled glass, motors, dichroic glass, mirrors. Presented during Microsilence, Galerie Des Grands Bains Douches De La Plaine, Marseille

Alice Jarry’s expertise in glass as an industrial material came about through her research-creation. She’s a new tenure-track hire for Concordia’s smart cities cluster, in the Department of Design and Computational Arts, and her work has been shown widely and internationally. 

Already exploring the idea of materiality – the potential and agency of things through a social and technological lens – and design for socio-environmentally responsive cities, Jarry’s focus on glass started with her cross-Atlantic residency in Belgium with artist Vincent Evrard. 

Looking for broken glass to create sound effects for their Transnumérique Biennale exhibition, Lighthouses, Evrard and Jarry went to hardware stores and window companies but no one had leftovers to give because glass was considered a valuable material. So they tried their luck at a recycling facility where Jarry had her “aha moment,” she says. “This facility was a spectacular assemblage of waste, of people, of technologies and infrastructures. These recycling systems really sparked questions about time, durations, process and life-cycles of materials.” 

Alice Jarry Alice Jarry at Minérale S.A, Lodelinsart, Belgium

Back in Quebec, Jarry pursued this interest and visited recycling plants to collect broken glass or glass dust that accumulated near ventilations systems. The facilities let her stay to observe the process and look at the machinery and computer systems. “When I started working with light, colour and glass, I would have never expected to end up working in recycling facilities, shoveling glass and dust,” she remarks with a laugh. “When you speak about how materials have impact and potential – perhaps that’s the agency of glass, to bring you and your research somewhere else?” 

All facilities were trying to make something useful or productive out of glass, but it’s a problematic material, she notes. Quebec has a single-stream recycling system, in which all recyclables are mixed at pickup, then sorted later so the level of cross-contamination of materials is high. 

A few years ago, much of our recycled material ended up in landfill, while facilities scrambled to put new systems in play. Because glass is basically sand, Jarry notes, it’s not toxic in landfill the way plastics are. “But it’s such a waste of resource at all levels – natural, human, infrastructural, financial,” she says. 

Europe’s separate-stream system means glass is easily recuperated to melt and form new glass. Or there’s the consignment system in which glass – think beer bottles – is washed and reused, and, at some point recast into new bottles. To Jarry, this closed-loop system makes best sense: “Let’s make glass out of glass.” But she acknowledges Quebec faces many infrastructural and organizational problems that don’t make this as easy as in Europe. Separate-stream recycling is more common and easier in Europe’s smaller, population-dense countries. And energy and resources are costly, so making new glass is more expensive than recasting old glass. 

But Quebec has developed other ways to use glass remains. It can be transformed into mineral wool for insulation, cellular glass for roads and landscaping, or a powder cement additive to mix with concrete. For the construction industry, glass is a less-toxic abrasive for sandblasting, so workers are at less risk for silicosis.

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