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Is Your Recycling Program At Odds With Your Sustainability Goals?

Posted by Michael J. Daley on 9/7/2015 to Press Releases
Very possibly, if your hauler relies on commingled collection. That is the rapidly growing and highly popular practice of allowing users to throw all recyclables into a single collection bin. A brief survey of the global discussion reveals a vigorous debate in the recycling community about the relative merits of commingling versus traditional separated or dual stream collection. Advocates of commingling claim it dramatically increases recyclables collection rates and lowers waste management costs while opponents point to downstream effects such as degraded material quality and contamination rates leading to excess landfilling.

The Downcycling Downer

Until the mid-1990's, dual stream or separate bins at collection was the rule. Today, such programs are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. With the advances in single stream technology, the number of MRF (material recovery facilities) has grown from a handful in the 90's to well over 160 by some estimates. By 2011, 64% of all recycling communities in the United States were using single-stream.

And that is not a good thing, according to Susan Collins, director of the Container Recycling Institute, a non-profit research and advocacy group. In a March 31, 2015 NPR interview, Collins said “As we often say, you can't unscramble an egg. In terms of preserving the quality of materials so that the maximum materials collected can actually be recycled, single-stream is one of the worst options.”

Collins claims that nearly 25% of single stream collections actually end up in a landfill.

Glass is one of the primary victims of premature downcycling according to Brinson Recycling, a source separated recycling service. High quality glass is nearly infinitely recyclable into the same high quality material with proper handling. Traditional cleaning and separation into clear, blue & green collection regimes preserve this highest use, minimizing the need for virgin materials and dramatically reducing energy use for processing. Commingled collection automatically renders the glass useless as a source material for manufacturers of these kinds of bottles and jars. Typically, commingled glass is headed straight on the way to becoming asphalt filler or fiberglass batting, final, dead end uses.

Another serious side-effect from all that broken glass is the contamination of the paper recyclables with tiny fragments. This makes it useless as feed stock for high grade paper and can damage processors equipment leading to costly downtime.

But if material degradation and high rejection rates are true, why is single-stream the most popular option in the United States?

Duke University Waste Analysis Reveals the Incentives for Single-Stream

There is little dispute about the benefits of single stream recycling on the upstream end of waste disposal. Advocates claim it can increase recyclable collection rates by up to 50% while reducing collection costs up to 25%. The dramatic effect comes from simplicity. Especially in public space situations, the choice of which bin to use apparently leaves many people confused enough to opt for the familiar trash can rather than puzzle out the proper recycling container.

A 2013 Duke waste survey provided evidence for why it makes sense to go for increased participation in recyclables diversion. The Facilities Management Recycling and Waste Reduction Unit audited four major campus departments trash and discovered that 40% of the items should have been recycled while another 43% could have been composted. That meant that only 17% of what was thrown away was actually trash. The evidence was so dramatic, and the promise of single-stream capture rates so alluring, that Arwen Buchholz, Duke's recycling and waste reduction coordinator, felt that “... making the switch to single-stream recycling will help us better capture the 40 percent recycling that was put in the trash.”

Duke's Campus Sustainability Committee agreed and a pilot project was implemented in September 2013. The goal is to divert 88% of non-trash materials from going to the landfill.

Advice for Program Managers

With diversion rates so much higher than dual-stream programs, facility managers, municipalities, and corporate entities concerned with waste reduction and recycling need to give the single-stream option serious consideration. But how to balance quantity goals with quality consequences?

In an interview for this blog post, RecycleAway founder Michael Alexander, was asked what advice his company gives to clients concerned with this issue.

“We do not have a policy position, as such, on single versus dual stream,” Alexander said. “As a practical matter, many of our clients don't have a choice. The type of collection is dictated by the haulers. And they have embraced the economic and logistical simplicity of single-stream.”

RecycleAway's major clients include corporations, municipalities, and institutions. Many projects include public space recycling, such as current work with the public transportation system in Boston, MA. “We are providing them with single-stream containers,” Alexander said, “We're finding that most public space programs follow the residential curbside programs and today, that means they are caught up in the single-stream revolution.”

Is That Such A Bad Thing, After All?

Alexander believes that revolution is driven by globalization and the economics of recyclable materials. “You have to realize our number one export is scrap paper. These are globally traded valuable commodities. The concern that low quality material will end up landfilled is largely mythical. There is so much embodied energy and raw resource in these materials that, ultimately, we cannot afford to throw them away or burn them.”

However, for those concerned about material quality, Alexander notes, there are times to buck the commingling trend. Two examples he sited are the office setting and a public park.

The paper stream in an office is likely to be high grade. It would make no sense to commingle this valuable material with cans and bottles, risking both liquid and glass contamination down the line. In this setting, separation is simple and means greater revenue for collectors of the material.

Similarly, in a public park or forest setting, where the majority of the waste stream is likely to be bottles and cans, it may be unwise to invite the disposal of paper goods along with this stream. Very likely, these paper items will be contaminated with food wastes. Commingled bins in this setting may be an invitation to downgrade the otherwise large and fairly clean stream.

“It's really about careful consideration of the disposal setting and mix of materials in any given situation,” Alexander concluded. The expert staff he has assembled at RecycleAway are ready to help prospective clients make that evaluation in determining the optimum recycling option for your programs.

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Michael J. Daleyis a childrens author, journalist, and renewable energy advocate living in Westminster, VT. You can see his work at