Single Stream: Is Simpler Recycling Better Recycling?

September 17, 2008

For the last couple of years, more and more cities throughout North America have been switching to "single stream" recycling programs (SSR). In this strategy, residents and businesses place all of their recyclables into a single container at the curb — no sorting necessary. Those materials then get taken to a high-tech recycling facility that handles the sorting and processing of various materials almost entirely automatically.

The idea is that the simpler it is for people to recycle, the more likely it is that they will recycle more materials — thus diverting even more materials from landfills, reducing landfill fees and increasing landfill lifespans. These benefits do indeed appear to result in most places where SSR has been implemented.

However, recycling is a business with unique economic considerations. Implementing SSR can be a mixed bag in terms of costs, recycled product quality, and marketability for recycled products.

If SSR is being considered (or has been implemented) near you, here are some ways to shed light on the business and logistical concerns.

In 2006, researchers from Colorado State University and the University of Wisconsin wrote a detailed case study of the economics of SSR as implemented in Madison, WI. This 16-page report is worth a full read because it includes research from several other cities' programs, and serves as a blueprint for targeted inquiry about every major angle of SSR programs. Title: "A contingent valuation study and benefit-cost analysis of the switch to automated collection of solid waste with single stream recycling in Madison, WI." Get report. Authors: Eric Jamelske,715-836-3254; and Gorm Kipperberg, 970-491-0887.

In November 2007, EPA published its methodology for estimating the benefits of recycling. Press: Tisha Petteway, 202-564-3191. EPA also reports that, in 2006, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash, of which 32.5% (82 million tons) was recycled. This means that each person generated about 4.6 pounds of trash per day, of which 1.5 pounds was recycled.

The first big hurdle for SSR is the cost for new equipment: a high-tech materials recovery facility (MRF), single-compartment collection trucks, and getting new curbside containers to local consumers and businesses. Of course, timing is a big part of this. Is the existing recycling facility in need of replacement or expansion? Is the existing fleet of collection trucks in need of replacement? In other words, when inquiring about the comparative expense of SSR, ask whether major new waste management capital costs were about to be incurred anyway.

Then there's the issue of the quality and marketability of recycled materials. One big concern is the contamination of paper with glass particles. Another is the fact that glass is particularly difficult to recycle. Advances in optical and other sorting technologies in MRFs can improve the accuracy of sorting and reduce contamination risk. But some cities, like Ft. Collins, CO, are providing the option of recycling glass at separate drop-off sites even as they switch to SSR (Sep. 1, 2008, Coloradoan story).

Local waste management and recycling agencies should be able to provide reporting on the volume and types of recycled materials sold in recent years, as well as revenue from those sales. Commodity prices in this market are very sensitive to quality, as well as to supply and demand.

Compare local commodity costs after SSR is implemented to national averages. Recycle.Net offers a chart of current commodity prices: Paper,plastic, glass, and non-ferrous metal.

How much capacity is left in your local landfills? Your state environmental protection agency should be able to provide current and outlook statistics. If space is getting tight, the need to either build new landfills or haul garbage elsewhere for disposal could be a considerable long-term expense.