Single-Stream Recycling Doesn’t Work

Netanel Hutman undertook a review of the recent literature on single-stream recycling collection systems for the Waste to Wealth Initiative at ILSR. The following are conclusion from this review.

Single-stream recycling is easy. Single-stream is when all recycled materials are collected in one bin. Compared to dual-stream recycling it costs less to collect, has higher consumer satisfaction, and accumulates more materials. This initially convinced many towns to switch to single-stream in the early 2000s. However, in 2013 China warned US companies that deliveries were too contaminated. In 2018 after no improvement, China banned importing recyclable materials from the US, effectively ending single-stream recycling.

Single-stream contamination rates are significantly higher than dual-streams. Mixing materials often crushes them during collection, making them harder to recover. Paper pierced with glass and aluminum and plastic cans crushed together must be diverted to landfills. To prepare for this, recovery facilities across the US conducted expensive renovations to process single-stream materials. Still, in 2018, at the height of single-stream recycling in the US, national average contamination rates hit 25%. Even with higher participation, recycling rates under single-stream were lower than under dual-stream because recovery rates were lower. The switch to single-stream caused the first drop in recycling rates since the beginning of modern recycling in the 1960s. 

Waste monopolies were the first to push for single-stream recycling in the 2000s as growing recycling rates threatened their business model. Contracting waste management to spearhead recycling projects instead of resource management structures operations to waste rather than produce. As a result, waste management built single-stream recycling in garbage’s image. Single-stream facilitates the recycling-to-landfill pipeline.

Stagnant recycling rates have led to major media articles proclaiming the death of recycling. But the object of criticism should be the policies that caused it to fail, not recycling itself. Single-stream is designed to sow distrust and disillusionment. 

But single-stream recycling can work. If products had more explicit instructions on how to recycle their packaging and we had more advanced processing technology, single-stream could be cleaner. But for now, the only effective recycling program is dual-stream. Single-stream’s simplicity is idyllic, reaping support from the hopeful who don’t understand the challenges our current recovery facilities face. Single-stream recycling beautifully illustrates the aspiration of zero waste. While single-stream is the future of recycling, dual-stream is the present.

To make recycling profitable, we need to reinstate dual-stream recycling until we have the capacity for single-stream. In addition, we need more support from regulators to ensure packaging will be easier to recycle. But more importantly, we need to rebuild trust in the recycling industry. While used as a ploy to end recycling, single-stream is a powerful vision for a zero-waste economy. Hopefully, we can take inspiration from it as we rebuild this necessary industry. 

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Netanel Hutman

Netanel researches recycling policy with the Waste to Wealth Initiative to advocate for local, sustainable, and financially equitable recycling. He received his BA from Binghamton University in Economics and Religious Studies.

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