Big Apple Shine: New Yorkers Sold On New `Glassphalt' Paving

NEW YORK - Streets here might not be paved with gold, as immigrants once believed, but they sure look as if they're studded with diamonds.

For the last two years, New York City has recycled glass bottles into filler for asphalt, producing a blacktop that sparkles and glitters.

So when the city repaved the street in front of the Plaza Hotel with the glittery stuff, called "glassphalt," Donald Trump demanded that the other streets around the hotel get similar treatment.

The pavement has become popular with a public that initially feared the visible green and brown glass particles would puncture car tires and blind motorists with harsh reflections, said Harold Watson, the city Department of Transportation's assistant commissioner for asphalt operations.

"Now, when we do a road, if we don't have glass on it, people come in and start complaining," said Watson, who supervises the asphalt manufacturing at a grimy city-owned plant on the Brooklyn waterfront. "They say, `We pay as much taxes as the next guy. Why did he get glass and not us?"'

Since the city's operation began in earnest in 1989, the Transportation Department has repaved nearly 900 lane-miles of streets in Manhattan and Brooklyn with asphalt containing about 10 percent glass. Portions of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Sixth Avenue and Wall Street now glitter as much as the city's famous marquees.

But New York's glassphalt program - the largest such glass-recycling operation in the nation - might well fall victim to the city's budget crisis.

Mayor David Dinkins has proposed suspending the city's recycling operation next month to save the city $65 million a year in collection costs. The mayor's proposal would halt the curbside collection program, which is the source of much of the glass used in glassphalt.

"That would be a shame," said Lucius Riccio, the city's transportation commissioner. "We're doing a record amount of paving and we could use all the glass they could give us."

Riccio said the city saved $500,000 last year by using crushed glass to replace part of the sand and gravel aggregate that makes up 95 percent of asphalt pavement. The remaining 5 percent is asphalt cement, the tarry, petroleum byproduct that binds the aggregate together.

That's not to mention the cost the city avoided by not having to dispose of 38,000 tons of glass in a landfill. The city uses only mixed-color glass in its asphalt, the kind of waste glass that bottle recyclers - who want only clean, color-separated glass - will not buy.

The operation also is overcoming conventional wisdom within an asphalt industry that has long disregarded glass recycling as kind of a flaky environmental invention.

Watson says such resistance is typical. He believes that stone and sand suppliers, which stand to lose business if glassphalt becomes accepted, are especially disdainful of the recycled pavement.

"There's a lot of people who can't find anything wrong with glassphalt but won't say anything good about it," said Watson, who has become sort of an ambassador for glassphalt, traveling nationwide to deliver talks to such groups as the Society of Asphalt Technicians.

Motorists' greatest fears about driving on broken glass never materialized. Researchers discovered that properly crushed glass lost its sharp edges and did not puncture tires. And glare was a threat only when asphalt-makers failed to crush the glass small enough - the big shards sparkled like spotlights.