From Buda, Texas to Madison, Maine the trend is clear: more and more towns are moving to single stream recycling and municipal recycling rates are up. Putting everything in one bin makes it easier for us at home and easier on collection vehicles to pick up. (These are our tax dollars at work so we want this to be cost effective, right?)
But from this point on, it is highly debatable whether we’ve made things better or worse. By comingling recyclables, we’re increasing contamination and degrading the quality of the recovered material streams – especially paper streams.
And the news gets a tad more nefarious than paper people complaining about quality issues. As a society, we may be skewing the data and drawing false conclusions. Municipal recovery rates are up. Yes… but recycling facilities are reporting that their yields are down. For example, a facility may buy 100 tons of waste paper, but when they process the paper they routinely find that 20% of the material cannot be used. It gets sorted out and sent to landfill from the recycling facility. We’ve moved our waste from the curb side (increasing recovery rates) but we’ve created more waste for recycling facilities (increasing industrial waste). So are we really solving the problem?
We have a lot to learn before we know the optimal solution. I personally think if we could get individuals to do more sorting at home we’d be better off, but for now the trend is moving the other way. Perhaps the solution lies in technology development to create better separation facilities. I have high hopes for technology. After all if we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to figure out how to separate a plastic bag from a paper bag.
So what do you think? Single stream recycling: Friend or foe?