It was the height of Covid restrictions, and sisters Caroline and Corinne Sieber were stuck inside. The Siebers, who attend Centreville High School, needed a creative way to spend their abundant free time. The pandemic precluded most opportunities, so they came up with a socially-distanced idea: recycling their neighbors’ glass, much of which was being thrown away.
When recycled in curbside containers with other waste, glass frequently breaks, contaminating other products and posing a hazard to recycling machinery. Citing this and other logistical challenges, Fairfax County discontinued single-stream glass recycling in 2019. In lieu of curbside pickup, purple bins were rolled out in several locations across the county for glass collection, requiring households to travel to recycle their glass.
Many choose to throw it in the trash instead.
“We found it surprising they don’t pick up glass anymore,” Caroline said. The two grew up in Germany, where recycling is much more comprehensive, and were upset that so much glass was going to waste. Assisted by their mother, Barbara, the sisters offered to pick up glass from households in their neighborhood and recycle it for them starting in March of last year. “We needed service hours anyways, so we were looking for opportunities to do that,” Corinne said.
What started as a neighborhood volunteer opportunity – picking up glass from just a few houses – has now blossomed into a full-scale operation. More than a year later, the NOVA Glass Recycling Network has expanded into six neighborhoods, as well as two high schools, Centreville and Fairfax. With the help of new volunteers, the network has made an impressive haul: more than 25,000 glass bottles have been recycled.
“I never expected it to go outside of our neighborhood,” Caroline remarked. “The fact that it has spread to so many neighborhoods and we have so many volunteers, even at different schools, is crazy to me.”
Starting out, the sisters had to contend with smaller difficulties. People would neglect to fully empty their glass, leading the sisters to sometimes spill the contents on themselves. Transporting that much waste was also less than pleasant. “The smell is horrible,” Corinne said.
The early days of the recycling network also had their share of funny moments. “When we first started, a lot of the glass would be placed in black trash bags. So, a couple of my classmates saw me picking up random peoples’ trash. I got made fun of the next day at school,” Corinne laughed. The tables have turned since. “But then I explained it to them, and now they’re actually working for us.”
Today, the challenges are much larger.
“In the beginning, our main obstacle was getting the word out about our program and what we do,” Caroline said. “The main obstacle now is it takes so long to do it. We have so many houses to go to, we have to schedule volunteers and sometimes take multiple cars and drive several times back and forth.” Regardless, the sisters are excited about the impact they are making. “Either way, it’s worth it. We’re happy we’re doing it,” Caroline added.
“It’s important we recycle as much as possible. There are so many benefits from glass recycling,” Corinne said. The recycling network’s website notes that glass takes approximately 1,000,000 years to decompose, about five times as long since modern humans first walked the earth. It’s part of the reason why the two are dedicated to making the world a “cleaner and greener place,” Caroline said, especially since “recycling is not that common,” particularly in the United States.
Even ostensibly reusable materials can be deceptive. An NPR and PBS Frontline investigation last year found that plastic materials marketed as recyclable overwhelmingly end up in landfills. According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, less than 10 percent of all plastic produced has been recycled. Glass, however, is often more readily recyclable so long as it is properly sorted from other waste.
The sisters now juggle their other responsibilities alongside the recycling network; among them, sports, extracurriculars and college applications (Corinne is a senior and Caroline is a junior). Even with mounting obligations, the sisters are staying committed to their recycling role, an experience their mother, Barbara, said has “distinguished their passions.”
The two have met with FCPS Superintendent Scott Braband to expand the recycling network. They are also brainstorming ways to encourage more schools to recycle, like setting up a county-wide glass recycling competition.
The Siebers have even discussed legislative changes with Delegate Dan Helmer. “They set a great example that when you put your mind to making change, organizing people and doing the hard work, you can have an impact on our community,” Helmer said. “I encourage every young person who sees problems to not be frustrated and do exactly as these amazing young women have done.”
The growth of the network certainly exceeded their original expectations. “Everything is pretty overwhelming,” Corinne said. Their success also underscores the difference a few individuals can make.
“I’m really proud of ourselves,” Caroline said. “As a regular person in the United States, I never realized just doing one thing can have so many advantages. Recycling one bottle at a time can make a really big impact.”