Testing the Numbers on Recycling of Recyclables

single stream recycling truckBy now, most of us know the drill for washing out glass and plastic containers and placing them the blue or green bins rather than bundling them with the rest of the trash. It has been decades since residents were first able to separate out recyclables from other waste for curbside pick-up. What started out as smaller local trends are now mature municipal services in some of the largest cities across the country. However, despite the millions of tons of waste that has been diverted from landfills for a life of reuse, we have certainly not reached the point where we are recycling everywhere in the U.S. and the places that do recycle are often still trashing considerable amounts of waste that could have more life to live.

“Single Stream” recycling, where all accepted versions of paper, metal and plastic go into a single large bin for collection, has been a practice rising in popularity. The method boasts some advantages, mainly that it is easier for waste haulers to collect the material which translates to cheaper hauling rates for the municipalities that hire them. But others claim that it also results in lower quality materials with more damaged stock being thrown away as waste. While an easier sell to haulers and townships, single stream recycling programs may be providing restricted net benefit while stunting the growth of the larger industry utilizing recycled resource streams.

They Grow Up So Fast

The first recycling program I encountered as a kid was in West Hartford, Connecticut. The city chose a fleet of long, red trucks with four separate compartments that could maintain the separation of different resource streams, mainly keeping paper from being contaminated by liquids left in metal, plastic or glass containers. The route usually required two workers with one staying behind the while another hopped to the curb to toss recyclables in the back. Recycling practice (not to be confused with Upcycling) in New York City uses a similar model that collects paper and cardboard separately from the rest (the city has mentioned that its paper is a resource stream that turns a profit, helping to cover the costs of the system).

dual stream recycle collection

A multi-stream recycling truck.

When holiday travels brought me back to Dedham, Massachusetts, I saw a different model. All recyclables go into a single big green bin that is collected by a truck with a large robotic arm to swing the container up and over the back of the truck, dumping its contents within before heading to the next driveway. From a hauler’s perspective, single stream recycling is markedly easier and being able to run routes with a single worker helps reduce collection costs to the city, but the practice can also reportedly bring broader environmental costs as well.

When metal, glass and plastic join paper in a compactor, the result can quickly be contaminating paper products to a lower quality resource. A report from CleanWaterAction.org highlights the negative outcome of what is posed as a faster, cheaper system:

“Paper collected in a single stream system is marketed to low-value uses like paperboard, much of which goes to overseas mills, rather than high quality uses, like fine printing and writing paper. This is having an adverse impact on domestic mills and making it harder for those who want to purchase recycled paper to find it.”

The resulting resource stream fetches less money for the organizations trying to recycle it, only increasing the cost of the supply chain altogether, but the problem goes one step further. Companies that have an interest in incorporating recycled paper into their products are faced with a deterrent: decreased volumes of high quality product at rates that are more inconsistent, only stunting our collective efforts to reduce the amount of virgin resources we use and the energy needed to use them. Recycling is a case where a stronger legislative position that mandates participation could yield the strength the industry needs to push it to the next level with multiple benefits.

Collected But Not Recycled

Material from single stream collection moves larger portions of the overall labor to sorting facilities where stray pieces of waste in the wrong stream are considered contaminants (like paper in bin of glass) and as a result often disposed of as trash. The same report notes that, “Strategic Materials, a processor of glass and plastic for bottle manufacturers in Franklin, MA, has to discard about 12% of the material they receive from single stream collection systems.”

But others have higher estimates for the amount of unintended waste ends up in a landfill rather than recycled into new products. Susan Collin’s article in Resource Recycling pegs waste from single stream contamination at 22-27%, leaving a quarter of the recyclables collected ultimately being buried in the ground. According to the article, the material most susceptible to single stream losses are paper and glass, losing 21-40% and 15-18% respectively–mostly at the secondary sorting and processing facilities.

When cities broadcast their recycling rates these numbers quantify what is actually recycled rather than collected at the curb–the latter being misleading as to how much material is actually being reused.

A fine example was a recent article that noted Philadelphia’s announcement of doubling its recycling rate since 2008, growing from 8% to a current 21% in six years. No matter what, this certainly represents a big step in the right direction. With over 128,000 tons of materials collected, the city estimated its carbon dioxide diversion at 1.5 million tons, but the fine print includes the fact that part of the city’s rise in numbers includes a switch to single-stream collection, begging the question of how much of the waste collected is actually recycled.

The issue points to a deeper need of accuracy and accountability across all sustainability efforts. As we begin to try and chart “progress” on environmental issues, be it anything from air quality to climate change, it is important that we are reporting accurate numbers that reflect the entire lifecycle of actions taken rather than only the positive (or negative) parts of the process.

Image Credit: trashbasher.blogspot.com