SINGLE STREAM COLLECTION:
DONE DEAL OR GOOD DEAL?
A common reaction to concerns about single stream
recycling is, "It's a done deal! Get over it!" But is
it a GOOD deal? And is it always done well? We need to talk about
this more, not squelch discussion.
Conservatree has been interviewing single stream participants
in all parts of the recycling cycle for the past three years to
find out the range of views about it. We have also been gathering
suggestions for resolving problems that many in the manufacturing
industries report encountering with single stream materials.
We've found there are so many variations on what people
identify as "single stream" that there's no single assessment
that can cover them all. Some programs are quite good, some are
The good news is that we can learn from both and make
improvements that work better for everyone. It's only by identifying
and resolving the problems that single stream can truly fulfill
the potential many want for it.
California recyclers and manufacturers who operate
in California or use materials from the state's recycling programs
gathered in Sacramento on May 23, 2005 for a provocative and extremely
Statewide Roundtable on Single Stream: Closing the Loop, Taking
A Whole Systems Approach. See our "walk-through" report
on this meeting for a wealth of detail on the benefits and challenges
of single stream recycling programs and read our Resource
Recycling Article about it.
Read our 2003 initial report, Single
Stream: An Investigation Into the Interaction Between Single Stream
Recycling Collection Systems and Recycled Paper Manufacturing.
Read Conservatree's August 2004 National
Recycling Coalition Congress Speech.
We're working on a Single
Stream Best Practices Manual, scheduled to be completed by spring
2006. Some of the discussion papers and questions used as background
for conference calls to discuss single stream program aspects are
Single stream recycling collection programs are
becoming very popular in many parts of the U.S. In the past, most
community recycling collection programs featured source separation
- meaning that residents did some of the sorting of materials before
delivering them in bins for curbside pick-up.
Now, however, many programs are converting to systems
that allow residents to put all recyclables, no matter what material,
into one pick-up container. Almost always, the new container is
a wheeled cart much larger than the previous recycling bins and
appropriate for automated curbside pick-up.
What's driving this trend? Many factors, we learned
in Conservatree's 2003 study, including greater tonnage collected
for recycling, higher landfill diversion percentages, cost savings
through automation, improved worker safety, and more.
But there are downsides that raise concerns as well.
Most paper manufacturers say that the quality of the fiber materials
they're getting from single stream systems is problematic, requiring
landfilling of tons of plastic, glass, and aluminum cans from each
mill every day.
The increases in recycled postconsumer content and
environmental papers envisioned in the Common
Vision promoted by more than 100 environmental groups worldwide
will need the kinds of increases in collected fiber that single
stream promises. At the same time, fiber has to be cost-effectively
sorted into the appropriate types for different kinds of mills (depending
on the products they make) and it has to be clean enough that contaminants
in the bales, such as glass and polystyrene, do not degrade the
manufacturing technology nor the ultimate products.
Ideally, the benefits of single stream collection
can be brought together with the requirements of the manufacturers
to produce greater quantities of high quality recycled products.
But it appears that adjustments and more detailed planning are needed
to ensure that outcome.
The recycling cycle is a continuing and interdependent
system: collection and processing, manufacturing, use of recycled
content products, then return to collection. It has been troubling
to us to find that many people within each recycling sector seem
to be losing sight of the fact that they are in a system with
each other, that each of them impacts the others, and that the
success of each is dependent on the success of the others.
The upside, though, is that the controversies arising
around single stream collection give us all the opportunity - and
necessity - for revisiting our concepts and commitment to the purpose,
function and process of recycling. In particular, we find it essential
to look at this issue from the perspective of the optimal functioning
of the whole recycling system, rather than only separate
parts of it. We also believe it is necessary to focus the recycling
system on what's needed to make high quality recycled products that
people will trust and embrace; loss of that focus undermines both
collection and manufacturing.
Single stream is not the only issue that is changing
the future for recycling. In California, especially, much of the
fiber is being shipped overseas, especially to China, which has
a phenomenally rapid paper mill construction program in progress.
Both these significant shifts raise questions about
how well the U.S. and Canadian recycling system will be able to
meet current and future North American needs for environmentally
sustainable paper production. We believe this needs more in-depth
consideration, and contribute our work as part of the discussion.
Please let us know what you think!