Over the last two decades, single-stream recycling programs have steadily increased in popularity throughout the United States. It’s no surprise, as single stream recycling is incredibly convenient: residents simply put all of their recyclables—paper, glass, aluminum, tin, and plastic—into a single receptacle to be picked up at the curb by their municipality and recycled at a local MRF.
In comparison to the more traditional dual-stream models where consumers separate paper from glass, tin, and plastic in two different bins, single-stream programs usually yield increases in materials collected as well as in participation. And save for initial capital expenses such as purchasing new bins or trucks, this system requires only a single worker to operate the collection vehicle, thus cutting collection costs.
However, single stream is quite problematic for paper recyclers. When recyclables are comingled with other materials in the blue bins, the paper becomes contaminated with broken glass, grease, chemicals, and other paper grades. This contamination increases processing costs and generally decreases the quality—and therefore the market price—of the recycled paper. What’s more, contaminants extracted from recycled paper are generally sent right to the landfill. So with single-stream programs, decreases in collection costs are often offset by commensurate increases in processing costs… and decreases in the quality of recycled paper.
The big challenge over the coming years will be to develop a recycling model that combines both high resident participation and collection rates with a low material contamination rate. Participation in recycling programs is certainly important, but if such programs provide subpar materials to paper and board mills, the entire recycling process could be jeopardized. As an industry, we must communicate with our neighbors, government representatives, and local agencies so that we may all work towards a viable alternative that addresses everyone’s needs, including those of the buyers of recycled paper.