First published in the December newsletter of the National Recycling Coalition
Since 2000 US investment in single stream recycling collection and processing has dominated the landscape. Leading industry analysts declared, “the future of US recycling is a five letter word C H I N A”. Yet, current shifts in markets that demand ‘clean stream’ materials brings into question the soundness of the investment in single stream systems. Even after China, the primary market for US secondary materials, for two decades, issued its Green Fence warning in 2013 that contamination was a major concern to Chinese industry, no changes were introduced. IN 2018 the National Sword ended all imports to China. Other nations followed suit.
The cut off sent a shock wave that rippled through the entire recycling sector in the US. The national recycling rate, stagnant since 2005, fell from 35% to 32%. Only the rapid increase in composting kept the gauge from falling further.
US recycling has staged a remarkable comeback. In addition to the growth of distributed composting, an estimated $5 billion in private sector investment has expanded domestic end use capacity in paper, plastic and electronic scrap. Jurisdictions have taken direct control over facilities and marketing and state ‘recycling market development’ agencies have expanded their programs. Enthusiasm for minimum content, bottle bills, reversion to dual stream collection and processing, unit pricing, right to repair, product and disposal bans have proliferated. Prices for secondary materials have rebounded.
Presently, infrastructure investment funds from federal legislation will be available. The Recycling Partnership and the National Recycling Coalition estimate that this investment could reach $16-17 billion in the next decade.
Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and Susan Kinsella, Recycling Archives Project, raise the question of which direction this investment should take to break the stagnation and decline in US recycling.
Editors, NRC Newsletter
Single Stream/Dual Stream: Contending Approaches to Recycling in the US
By Neil Seldman and Susan Kinsella
Can it be that dual stream recycling is reasserting itself to meet the demand for clean materials? Is this what the markets are saying? Are we going back to the future of US recycling in our quest for Zero Waste, or Darn Close To It!
After two decades of a headlong rush to single stream recycling collection programs across the US, are they still the best positioned to take us into the new recycling future we’re in the process of designing? Or, in the wake of losing overseas markets for our collected materials and the need to pivot to domestic demand, do other approaches such as dual stream collection offer some important advantages we should be considering?
Is New Jersey Telling Us Something?
In New Jersey, the cost of processing materials from partially separated, dual stream collection can be $40 less ($80 vs. $120 per ton) than processing from single stream collection, or mixed recyclables. Dual stream costs processors less to turn materials into bales for markets and it earns higher prices for cleaner materials. Dual stream also recovers glass, 20-25% of the recycle stream by weight, for markets that are greatly under-supplied. Haulers have adjusted logistics and can collect dual stream materials at the same cost as single stream collection. That allows dual stream to maintain glass quality to recycle it back into industrial and consumer products. Everybody gains.
The Association of New Jersey Recyclers’ recent statewide survey found that 79% of the state’s recycling programs were single stream. Conversion to dual stream collection is hampered by a shortage of dual stream processing capacity, A new state Recycling Markets Development Council is now exploring dual vs. single stream collection as part of its overall mission to develop new ideas for education, MRF needs, regulatory issues, legislative recommendations, labeling and finance issues.
New processing capacity is needed in the state, which has suffered from a series of burnt-out MRFs, caused by improper disposal of batteries. Mini MRFs can help increase capacity for either single stream or dual stream processing. Cumberland County, NJ just opened their facility, built by Revolution Technology, which can reduce processing costs and produce quality bales for markets from either single stream or dual stream materials. A combined study for Maplewood and South Orange, NJ is weighing the comparative advantages of dual vs. single stream recycling.
Cities in California have been encouraged to consider implementing dual stream recycling under AB 815 (2020) in an effort to reduce contamination and help market 2 materials within the state. Jurisdictions are encouraged, but not required, to increase curbside separation in their recycling program. “When we throw all of our recyclables into the same bin, glass breaks, leftover soda spills on copy paper and many recycled materials become too dirty to be reused,” said Assembly Member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, who introduced the bill. “AB 815 will keep our recyclables cleaner and more marketable so they can actually be turned into new products.” In Berkeley dual stream systems marketed their materials, as single stream systems could not. During the China import ban, the city’s system composed of municipal, private and community networks delivered its clean materials to market without disruption.
With our national recycling rate stalled at 32%, is such a mediocre recycling achievement about the best our infrastructure can provide? Or could it be that the dominant recycling mode in the US, single stream, is off course? Can recycling ever deliver on recyclers’ promises to reach Zero Waste?
Recycling Across History
In the early 1970s, recyclers introduced the slogan, “Just Do It!”, before it was trademarked by Nike. Do we need to go back to dual stream recycling to regain the momentum of the 1970-2000 years of steady growth that got us to 35% recycling nationally before stagnation set in?
Historically, recycling goes back centuries. For example, during US colonial times, tinkers went door-to-door selling goods and buying household recyclable materials such as metals and rags. The first paper mill in the North American British territories, the Rittenhouse mill in 1690 near Philadelphia, was a recycling mill making paper from used clothing and linen rags. US manufacturers were increasingly recycling their scraps well before World War II.
US municipal recycling regained fashion in the late 1960s after its precipitous decline following the end of World War II in 1945. Extraordinary events raised our environmental consciousness: the Cleveland River fire, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the deadly air inversions in New York City and elsewhere. The writings of Murray Bookchin, Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson pointed to new directions for national and local actions. Two leading environmental organizations in particular emerged from this period: Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
The 1970’s a resurgence of recycling followed the development of Garden State Newspaper, Garfield, NJ and St. Jude Polymer, Frackville, PA and the rapid expansion of mini steel mills by Nucor.
Earth Day 1970 created a huge upwelling in enthusiasm for recycling. Industry and scrap dealers already had a strong recycling system going for internal industrial scraps. What was new were the community recycling efforts that dramatically expanded the quantity of collected materials and the far greater mixture and diversity of the collection stream.
In many cases, early recycling dropoff and collection programs were funded by paper and metal “scrappies” or scrap yards, which had been critical to the war effort in World War II. As the community recycling programs started up throughout the 1970s to the 1990s, these industrial recycling facilities were especially essential for the difficult task of adjusting to both the increased quantity and reduced quality of the new programs to meet industrial specifications.
Community, or citizen based, recycling started through a network of spontaneous dropoff recycling centers hosted in backyards, abandoned gas stations and vacant lots. Earth Day spurred thousands of such centers. Soon there was a natural evolution from dropoff to curbside collection by new recycling companies and groups such as: Recycle Unlimited, St. Paul, MN; Palisades Recycling, Los Angeles; Portland Recycling Team, Portland, OR; Recycling Unlimited, Grand Rapids, MI; DuPont Circle Neighborhood Ecology, Washington, DC; and Garbagios, Eugene, OR. By the 1980s, popular pressure forced municipalities to undertake recycling as part of solid waste management.
Recycling levels grew steadily and reached 35% by 2005 to the extent that they threatened Big Waste by undermining profits from landfills and incinerators. Waste Management, Inc. falsified reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission in order to keep its stock price high, used to buy up smaller companies. They got caught and were fined heavily but there was no attempt to break up their burgeoning monopolies.
The vertically integrated waste monopolies used their leveraged power to rapidly reshape the US recycling system into single stream collection. The concept was embraced with remarkable speed, enhanced by low bidding that drove dual stream companies out of business. To increase the flow of materials to their MRFs, Big Waste actively lobbied cities to move toward a recycling system based on depositing all recyclables in a single bin. For cities, single stream collection was a relatively easy sell. The transformation away from dual stream was dramatic. In 1995, only five cities had adopted single stream. By 2003, that number jumped to 93. Between 2005 and 2014, use of single stream systems grew from 29 percent of American communities to 80 percent.
Single stream collection was considered to be simpler, more convenient, and less expensive. It also increased the amount of materials considered to be “recycled” (albeit with contamination). In reality, since “recycling” doesn’t actually occur until materials are successfully made into new products, and single stream produced high percentages of unusable materials, much less actually was “recycled” than assumed. But cities considered recycling an add-on chore and were predisposed to contract out the service, without concern for the impacts on the recycling system.
Cities were also often forced to send their recyclables out of town to large centralized facilities at their own expense. These oversized facilities were hardly efficient. They served Big Waste’s interests but not the public good.
In 2007, Susan Kinsella, of San Francisco’s Conservatree, and Richard Gertman, of San Jose’s Environmental Planning Consultants, compared dual stream and single stream programs in a study supported by funders from every sector of the recycling system.
They found that the promise of lower costs disappeared as soon as you look at the total picture of collection, processing and marketing. In fact, single stream actually increased costs by $3/ton on average, system wide, over dual stream.
Single stream was and is a mythic panacea promoted by business circles as flagrantly as were the Columbia University privatization studies of the 1970s: ideologically motivated studies that formed the conventional wisdom for decades despite their faux analysis that omitted consideration of key variables such as working conditions, vacations and benefits.
The Savas study misinformed a generation of solid waste managers and the public into believing that privatization was the key to efficiency. The ‘single stream’ myth promoted by Big Waste similarly distorted the reality of effective recycling for 20 years.
Kinsella and Gertman concluded that approaching recycling as a systems process — collection, processing, and marketing usable materials to manufacturers — is essential. They emphasized that processing is most often the weak link in single stream programs. While single stream may lower collection costs, those savings and more must then be invested in high quality processing. Many commingled materials cannot be adequately sorted back into their individual component categories. However, the percentage of leftover single stream contaminants and residues can be significantly reduced through high quality program and processing design.
KEY STEPS IN DESIGNING A RECYCLING PROGRAM
The advice was not heeded. Not even after the dire warning from the Chinese that their Green Fence in 2013 was being constructed to restrict imported shipments of recyclables with up to 40% contamination.
Palace Stepps, president of Sunoco Recycling, summarized the industry’s thinking. “From the paper division standpoint, we didn’t believe that the Chinese could actually follow through on what they had promised . . . simply because of market dynamics . . . because [of] the Chinese paper industry’s demand for feedstock.”
Big Waste made no changes to US recycling, with the result that China’s National Sword policy was put in place at the end of 2017. All US imports were halted, throwing US recycling into chaos. Markets collapsed. A mix of single stream materials fell from $100 per ton to negative pricing; cities started paying to have their materials processed and marketed. An estimated 150 jurisdictions cancelled recycling and sent materials to landfills and incinerators. Many other programs cut back on materials collected.
Finally the alarm bells sounded. Big Waste recyclers pleaded with China for more time. None was given. Big Waste poured hundreds of millions of dollars into improving single stream efficiency. More robots, more high tech screens and sorters, more workers and education programs to reduce contamination have followed. In just three years the cost of processing jumped from $75 per ton to $120 per ton and more. Washington, DC, with a 20-25% recycling rate, pays $119/per ton for processing recyclables and a $25/per ton surcharge for glass which is 20-25% of the recycle stream and which cannot be processed for use in bottle manufacturing, construction, abrasive or insulation industries. Transportation to a facility 25 miles away cost the city of 650,000 people $400-$500,000 per year in transportation.
New Studies and National Recycling Plans
The prospect of investment of billions of dollars in US infrastructure stimulated the rise of major reports on the future of recycling. The Recycling Partnership, a non-profit recycling investment fund established by Fortune 500 corporations, produced reports in both 2020 and 2021. The Ball Corporation, a packaging manufacturing 7 company, commissioned another. These studies focused exclusively on single stream recycling. Aaron Berman, a principal author of the Recycling Partnership reports, points to the obvious reason for this focus. “The report has a current system perspective, which is single stream.” The Recycling Partnership research, in effect, considers that the dual stream vs. single stream debate and decision has already left the station. The MRFs have been set up; hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested. Thus, their methodology disregards 29% of current US cities and counties where dual stream is functioning well. But the higher prices earned by dual stream materials are telling our cities to follow the money.
The Recycling Partnership calls for a $17 billion investment over the next few years to bring single stream recycling to all US households, and to use education to combat contamination, with a focus on educational “Feet on the Ground” strategies, using resident ambassadors.
Critical Plan Differences
The Recycling Partnership plan for $17 billion calls for virtually the same investment level sought in the National Recycling Coalition’s American Recycling Infrastructure Plan (ARIP), which calls for a $16.6 billion investment. But they are not comparable. The ARIP curates and harmonizes four prior advocacy plans:
ARIP focuses on both commercial and residential streams, including demolition and disaster debris, but not medical waste. The Recycling Partnership report focuses exclusively on residential materials.
With its focus solely on residential materials and single stream collection, the Recycling Partnership’s vision runs the risk of limiting the newly rebuilding US recycling system to strategies that have, to date, produced only mediocre recycling at high costs, threatening the progress toward implementing Zero Waste.
More Data, Better Decisionmaking
Billions of dollars will soon be invested in US capital and social infrastructure, following passage of current legislation in Congress. There is a great need for more detailed information upon which cities and counties will make decisions that will impact future generations. Recycling adds to national wealth and security by renewing valuable resources, cutting costs of disposal, reducing climate impact, and stimulating jobs in manufacturing, including composting and reuse.
Questions about single stream abound, including scale and ownership of the facility, corporate conflicts of interest, distance to processing plants, contracts with specifications for material quality, local jobs and tax base. Complexities abound. But single stream processing can work when the focus is on quality and meeting manufacturers’ feedstock requirements.
With regard to processing quality, composite statements from MRF company managers, gleaned from recent interviews, suggests that, “It is not necessarily the scale of the technology but the ownership. Does the owner want to recover as much material from recycling as possible or just prepare materials for landfills?” Thus, MRFs operated by mission-driven companies and cities (e.g., Eureka, Twin Cities, MN; EcoCycle, Boulder, CO; and San Francisco, CA) have operated highly efficient single stream systems of from 400-800 tons per day. Rumpke Company, a regional Midwestern monopoly landfill company, has also pioneered glass recovery and beneficiation.
As jurisdictions like Des Moines, Iowa; Maplewood and South Orange, NJ; Wilkes Barre, PA and Cumberland County, NJ, Marquette County, MI assert their control over recycling systems, will single stream continue to dominate the landscape? Wilkes Barre, PA is one city that switched to dual stream in 2021, in an attempt to reduce costs of recycling that had soared by 30% the past year to $100 per ton. The city anticipates a savings of $25-$35 dollars per ton with an in-town, dual stream system. On Long Island, towns that reverted to dual stream have seen reduced costs and increased levels of recycling.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
The debate over single or dual stream comes during the debate about EPR. Should recycling be turned over to corporate giants or should EPR tax producers, with funds going to state and local agencies to preserve local decision-making? Should EPR be state based or should there be a national EPR system? Or should EPR be sidelined in favor of traditional investments outlined in the American Recycling Infrastructure Program?
The history of Big Waste hegemony over the current recycling system and the twodecades of stagnation in US recycling suggest that skillful local control, which offers direct access to decision making by organized citizens and small businesses, is the key to making progress toward a Zero Waste economy and society.
The fear is palpable that Extended Producer Responsibility laws will turn over recycling to Big Waste central processing networks that will ignore the processing realities and requirements, and therefore thwart the re-emergence of dual stream for their private interests. Domination of the recycling sector by other Fortune 500 companies such as Big Soda and Big Packaging would produce the same effect: abdication of local control and perforce citizen input. Companies that have taken over single stream, and that are poised to take over EPR, have, by definition as corporations, responsibilities only to make money for their investors, while recycling should benefit a much wider array of responsibilities, such as the public interest, the environment, and local community economies that are outside the purview of corporate concern. Self-interested corporations should not make rules that have the force of law. Distrust of corporate control is the conventional wisdom.
Dave Allaway, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, emphasizes that there are different kinds of EPR and good program design can prevent turning all the power over to companies. Maurice Sampson, Eastern Pennsylvania Clean Water Action, makes a similar point, that Philadelphia would not be willing to give up their control over recycling. Excellent recycling bills in California and Washington were defeated because legislators feared concentrated authority as a threat to independent haulers and waste management companies as well as cities and counties.
As recycling and Zero Waste activists Mary Lou Van Deventer from Urban Ore in Berkeley, CA, Tracy Frisch from the Clean Air Action Network in Warren County, NY, and Louise Mann from Source Reduction Recycling and Zero Waste Systems in Fayetteville, AR ask: “Will EPR just hand the whole program design problem over to ‘stewards’ — major companies that previously did not succeed at recycling?”
Most recently GFL, a waste hauling giant with operations in the US and Canada, has formed a powerful Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) in anticipation of new EPR legislation coming into force in Ontario between 2023 to 2025. Keith Barker writes, “The establishment of a PRO by one of the largest waste management firms in Canada has some in the industry postulating that this could jeopardize a truly competitive marketplace.”
Next Steps for a Zero Waste Analysis
To date, there is no database on dual stream conversions. Municipal conversion to dual stream from single stream collection systems has not been documented. What is the minimum economy of scale for successful single stream processing? Is there a minimum economy of scale for dual stream processing?
Decisionmakers need to be informed about detailed economic cost-benefit analyses, benchmarking of alternatives, comparative climate impacts, and behavioral studies.
Let’s gather this data, analyze it and put the lessons to work. Dual stream works, as it had in the 1970-2000 era, bringing us to the dawn of Zero Waste in the US. Nationally, we have a 32% recycling rate. We can double this in a few years with the proper infrastructure investments in appropriate dual stream and single stream systems.
Attention to the reality of the increased promise of dual stream recycling can avert us from improper investment in single stream recycling and its limited potential to get the country to Zero Waste.
Support for dual stream is important because it results in cleaner materials, produces less residue and contamination and therefore generates more actual recyclables, and can cost less than single stream. The markets are telling us that dual stream is a key to a struggling recycling sector. Furthermore the ethical and moral appeal of Zero Waste requires us to collect the data and invest accordingly.
Neil Seldman is director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC. Prior to ILSR Seldman worked in manufacturing and was a professor of political theory. Susan Kinsella was director of communications and research at Conservatree Paper Company, the environmental paper distributor that in the 1970s to 1990s jump-started the markets for recycled paper in North America. In 1998, she converted its education and advocacy missions into the nonprofit Conservatree, where she conducted several single stream studies. Today she is executive director of the Recycling Archives Project, sponsored by Urban Ore and ILSR.
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