Making Sand from Glass?

In Broward County, Florida, ground glass is being tested as a substitute for sand.© Patti Roth

Glass bottles tossed into recycling bins may one day bulk up beaches. Officials in South Florida are determining if finely ground glass is suitable for replenishing dwindling sections of sand. The glass bottles would be pulverized into a substance that’s soft and safe for bare feet, providing a handy material for replenishing wave-worn areas between the more extensive beach renourishment projects. "It feels like sand, and it looks like sand," says Stephen Higgins of Broward County’s Environmental Protection Department, which is participating in the venture. "I think it would be a nice supplement. We’re constantly needing to put more material on the beach.""

From an environmental standpoint, the manmade sand would provide a useful outlet for discarded glass. In fact, the beach glass project kicked off four years ago when Broward County officials were seeking alternative markets for the bottles they collect, says recycling program manager Phil Bresee.

Charles Finkl, a marine geologist and professor at Florida Atlantic University, is delighted with the concept. He’s discussed turning glass into sand in various forums, since he and a former student came up with the idea as a research topic for a master’s thesis.

Beach renourishment projects usually involve pumping in sand from offshore sources. But with stricter regulations protecting reefs, available sources of sand are less plentiful and tougher to access, says Finkl, who works for Coastal Planning and Engineering in Boca Raton, a sub-consultant on the Broward project.

Gordon Thomson, a senior coastal engineer who also works for that firm, says glass bits were used on beaches in New Zealand and Curacao. Researchers in Florida are looking at the feasibility of glass from various scientific perspectives, including the impact on nesting turtles and other sea life. So far, experiments have not revealed any discernible difference. To determine how the glass performs amid the waves and natural sand, the project leaders are seeking state and federal permits to put 3,000 tons—equal to the load of 150 pickup trucks—along a 300-foot section of the beach.

Project participants are enthusiastic, as is the public, according to local surveys. Walter McLeod, president of the nonprofit Clean Beaches Council, lauded the effort as among the most innovative in the nation. "It makes good environmental sense, and good public policy sense," he says. The economics seem to be the biggest issue. Shipping bottles out of state for processing is expensive. The goal is to be successful enough that government or private enterprise will step in and establish a local glass processing plant.