Why Single-Stream Recycling Should Be Retired

I still remember when my local waste management authority rolled out single-stream recycling. The thought of just dumping all my recycling in a single bin felt simultaneously wrong and very delightful; no more painstaking sorting or checking a potential recyclable against a labyrinthine list to figure out which bin it went in.

As it turns out, my sneaking feeling that this was too good to be true turned out to be correct. It’s possible that single-stream recycling should be tossed into the bin. Here’s why.

Single-stream recycling definitely boosts participation in recycling programs, which is great. After all, it’s dismaying to learn that 66 percent of people say they wouldn’t bother recycling if it wasn’t made as simple as possible. The problem is that single-stream may not actually increase the amount of material being recycled — and these initiatives could, in fact, reduce the total amount of recycled materials

There are a couple of problems with single-stream recycling. The first is that people really do throw just about anything in there — and I’m totally guilty of this on occasion too. We’re talking food-soiled containers, materials that are not recyclable — like styrofoam — and items that require special processing, like lightbulbs.

Treating your recycling bin like a trash can requires personnel to discard your trash at a sorting facility — a process that can involve mechanical separation, as well as hand-sorting. Sometimes it even fouls the equipment used for sorting. Plastic bags, for example, can snarl in the machinery and bring it to a literal grinding halt.

Single-stream recycling can also contaminate materials that would have been recyclable if they hadn’t been treated this way. That greasy pizza box could ruin otherwise recyclable paper stored in the same bin, for example — and food from poorly-rinsed containers can contaminate not just your recycling, but a whole batch. This makes recycling much more expensive and much less efficient, even if it’s cheaper and easier to pick up single bins rather than sorted ones.

Another issue with single-stream recycling is how materials are handled. Let’s say you are a better person than me, and you’re scrupulous about making sure everything in your bin is for sure recyclable. Well, that glass bottle that broke when you tossed it in, your unwanted phonebook and your tin cans all get ground and crushed together when they’re picked up by waste management trucks. And sometimes, they’re so contaminated by each other that they’re unusable.

Until pretty recently, the United States could export this kind of marginal recycling, but China has cracked down on what the country accepts because it’s tired of our trash. Some other nations have started buying it instead, but there’s still a lot of contaminated recycling sitting around unsold — or ending up in the landfill because waste management facilities can’t store it forever.

Some communities are starting to roll back their single-stream programs and transition to requiring people to sort at least some of their recyclables. It probably won’t get as mindbendingly complicated as recycling was in Japan where I visited — I gawked at a friend’s 12 separate bins for different kinds of recyclables, and the fines for failing to sort recycling properly weren’t cheap — but it may require a little more effort from us.

Here’s hoping that the spirit of recycling is engrained enough that people will be willing to put in the few minutes of extra time to sort. And we can only cross our fingers that people continue moving away from single-use products and towards reusable ones to cut down on how much they contribute to the waste stream.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

55 comments

Frances G
Frances G28 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Kyle N
Kyle N29 days ago

Here we used to seperate everything, just went to single stream a few years ago, not too fond of it. but see too many putting recycleables in the trash area yet.

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Tabot T
Tabot T29 days ago

Thanks!

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Glennis W
Glennis W29 days ago

Very interesting Thank you for caring and eharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W29 days ago

New tentants new phamplets on recycling Thank you for caring and eharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W29 days ago

People should recycle properly Thank you for caring and eharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W29 days ago

Thank you for caring and eharing

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Jessica C
Jessica C29 days ago

thx

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Ruth S
Ruth S29 days ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth S29 days ago

Thanks.

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