Every night, a section of Taipei City’s Fuxing North Road is lit up like the Avenue of Stars. But few people know that under this road is actually buried a lot of broken glass, and that, here, waste bottles have found a second life.
“Are you selling any wine bottles? Are you selling any wine bottles? What about scrap metal or paper?” Taiwan’s recycling trucks often play this song, so familiar to everyone. But in yesteryears, it was a description of the situation of poor families, whose every member needed to rely on recycling garbage to survive. Because of the dreary picture it presented, seeming to satirise poor governance, the song was forbidden in the authoritarian era.
But today, recycling bottles is no longer a symbol of poverty. Spring Pool Glass Industrial CO., LTD takes in more than 60% of Taiwan’s recycled waste glass, not only using it for paving but also fusing it into high grade wine glasses, fireproof building materials and artistic glassware, and exporting these to the world. Waste glass that was originally worth a mere cent is turned into something valuable.
Collecting waste glass can even become a big business
As the Hsinchu area in Taiwan is rich in silica mines and natural gas, many glass industrialists were attracted there to set up factories producing medical and industrial goods and daily necessities during the Japanese colonial period 100 years ago.
In 1953, the Hsinchu Glass Company set up the largest factory in Taiwanese history, specialising in the manufacture of flat glass for building materials and frost glass for the arts. This led to the vigorous development of the glass industry in Hsinchu, with the region becoming one of the world’s largest exporters of glass.
When Chun-chi Wu was 16 years old, he entered a glass factory as an apprentice, where all day long he needed to stand next to a furnace that reached temperatures of up to 1300 degrees Celsius in order to maintain production line operations. In the 1970s, when the raw materials of glass were gradually exhausted in Taiwan, manufacturers were forced to find ways to transform their industry. At the time, Chun-chi Wu thought to himself, since breaking glass does not affect its internal silica composition, then why not use waste glass to create new glass?
With this idea in mind, he bought 200 tonnes of broken glass from manufacturers, re-processed it, and then sold it to small factories to use as recycled materials. When this approach proved feasible, he set up a company in his own name, continued to collect leftover glass from cutting, and bit by bit established 20 recycling stations around the country to systematically recover waste glass from all over.
After recovering the glass, he decided its flow according to its quality. Rough glass could be used for building materials such as asphalt, interlocking concrete bricks and red bricks partly made of glass. If it was more delicate, it could be used for ceramic glazing, or turned into glass containers or flat glass.
However, by the 1990s, labour costs in Taiwan had increased over time to the point that the added value of glass had stagnated. Chun-chi Wu racked his brains for a solution. When he found glass art designers and traditional glass masters to cooperate with, they began creating crystal-clear artistic glassware. Not only did he set up counters in department stores for these works, but also exhibited them on the same stage as the Italian boutique brand Venini. Among these pieces was “Colourful Tropical Fish”, which was even exported to Europe and the United States.
Value-adding rather than downgrading gives glass a second life of even greater brilliance
Despite this successful transformation, the craft market was limited. The speed at which waste glass is produced far exceeds the speed of the factory production process when it comes to craftworks. Therefore, Spring Pool Glass Industrial developed another method, in which broken glass is quickly rotated in a spiral-shaped furnace to remove the sharp angles and melt it into round shapes, before it is finally turned into colourful granules.
This new material, called “coloured glass pebbles”, catches the light, is hard, has low water absorption, and blocks UV, making it very suitable for making collages on building walls, garden trails, swimming pools and in public art. For example, the fish-shaped underpass in front of Keelung Station uses “coloured glass pebbles” to create an underwater world.
In addition, as a result of 3C products becoming increasingly popular, more and more waste LCD screens are now produced. However, the glass of the waste screens is difficult to make use of because of its thinness. Spring Pool Glass Industrial thought about this problem long and hard before discovering that the aluminium oxide inside had high temperature resistance and could be processed. In this way, it began turning waste LED screens into “lightweight foam energy-saving bricks”.
This brand-new brick is fireproof, shockproof, soundproof and lightweight. When one side is exposed to flames of 1100 degrees Celsius for one hour, the other side of the brick only reaches a temperature of 85 degrees. And the weight of these bricks is just one-fifth of general red bricks, making their use in construction very convenient.
In 2007, the company turned all of its heavy-oil-fired and gas-fired kilns into electric-fired ones, not only so that it could reduce energy consumption when heating the kilns to 1600 degrees, but also so that the blown glass would turn out hardened and brightened. Through this new technology, Spring Pool Glass Industrial has produced excellent quality bottles, wine glasses, cups, bottles, dishes and other products, naming them “W Glass” in an attempt to build its brand as the Taiwanese version of Swarovski.
Spring Pool Glass Industrial now recycles more than 100,000 tonnes of glass a year, accounting for more than half of Taiwan’s total glass recycling. No matter the shape or colour of the glass, it is all accepted. And because silicon sand accounts for 60 to 70% of the composition of glass, Spring Pool Glass Industrial succeeds at reducing silicon ore production in Taiwan by 70,000 tonnes every year, as well as reduces the need for imports of borax and soda ash materials.
Around the world, there are not many companies that deal with the entire life cycle of glass, from recycling to production, like Spring Pool Glass Industrial does. Even more unusual is that its team “adds value” to waste, rather than just “downgrading” it. Spring Pool Glass Industrial not only turns today’s products into tomorrow’s resources, but also opens up a bright future for the glass industry.