Single Stream Recycling- Is It a Viable Method for Your Community?

Single Stream Recycling is a very beneficial system that has become part of daily life in America. It triggers purposeful use of waste materials and reduces energy use. It also decreases air pollution (via incineration) and cuts water contamination (via landfilling). However, though everyone agrees on the goals of reusing waste materials, there is much debate on the best methods to achieve these ends.

Two of the most popular recycling methods are Source Separation (cleaning and sorting paper, glass, plastic and metal materials from food garbage, into separate dumpsters prior to collection) and Single Steam Recycling, (mixing all recyclables into one trash dumpster, which is then picked up in one collection truck). Recently, Single Stream Recycling has been getting a second look.

Not long ago, Source Separation was the preferred recycling method because of the high sorting costs associated with Single Stream Recycling. But, new advances in sorting technology have substantially lowered Single Stream Recycling operating costs.

For instance, today a compact Single Stream Recycling system can separate materials at the rate of 10-tons-per-hour, making Single Stream a viable alternative to the Source Separation method. This development has caused many US communities to switch, or consider switching, to Single Stream.

With Single Stream, instead of being sorted into separate commodities by consumers before pick up, a full mixture of recyclables is separated and processed for reuse after collection at a materials recovery facility (MRF).

Pros and Cons

Nevertheless, Single Stream Recycling has both advantages and disadvantages. The positives include:

  • Less time spent by residents washing and sorting waste materials into separate dumpsters for individual pick up
  • Less space required inside residences and at curb side for recyclables collection
  • Less waste materials going to landfills
  • Less space needed for landfills
  • Less water pollution (from materials in a landfill)
  • Less air pollution (from materials incinerated )
  • More recyclables placed at curbside
  • More consumer participation due to convenience
  • More opportunity to add new materials to recyclables accepted
  • More paper grades collected (such as: junk mail, telephone books and mixed residential paper)

The disadvantages of Single Stream include:

  • Increased processing costs (that maybe passed onto residents in the form of taxes or fees)
  • Increased residual materials (recyclables that are contaminated), such as paper or plastic tainted by broken glass
  • Decreased commodity prices (of paper and plastic) due to contamination

Because of its convenience, single stream recycling is gaining popularity across the United States. Though it’s an easier, more efficient method at the front end, it is not always less expensive than current systems. Cost increases can come in the form of new carts/bins, education of residents on what to recycle, and the construction or renovation of MRFs. Some of these increases could be passed on to residents.

Communities that already have strong recycling programs in place with high participation may choose to continue with these systems because they are working well. Municipalities still working toward effective recycling programs may be the best candidates for Single Stream Recycling. They should analyze their individual situations, determine the costs and make responsible decisions that enable the highest amount and percentage of quality recyclables to be recovered.

What’s your experience with single stream vs. source separation?