For generations like Millennials and Gen-Z, single-stream recycling may be so routine that it’s impossible to imagine an alternative. But in the long lifespan of recycling, single-stream is still very new to the game.
Single-stream recycling was implemented in the U.S. in the 1990’s with goals to decrease collection costs for recyclers and increase the amount of recyclable materials collected. Prior to the 90’s, dual-stream recycling was the norm, where residents would combine metals, glass, and plastics in one bin while separating out newspapers and mixed papers in a separate bin.
Trucks would have three or more compartments in order to keep materials separate upon pickup and be able to process and sell materials quicker, since they had already been sorted by the consumer.
While single-stream recycling certainly has saved recyclers on collection costs and the logistical hassle of having separate collection containers and truck pickups, it has been shown to increase processing costs so much so that it is not economically a better strategy. In fact, single-stream recycling adds up to about $3+ more per ton than dual-stream does.
Not to mention, the resulting scrap material quality is significantly lower under single-stream recycling, which has surely contributed to China’s rising purity standards. Even worse, there hasn’t been any concrete evidence that single-stream recycling collects any more recyclables than dual-stream does.
Single-Stream Caught on Fast
When single-stream was rolled out in the 1990’s in California, it was such a hit that by 2005, about a fifth of all U.S. communities with recycling programs had switched. By 2010, that number got closer to two-thirds.
According to survey results, single-stream recycling more than doubled recycling rates in American communities between 2005 and 2014. This indicates that the volume of materials obtained in single-stream recycling is higher—but studies also show that non-recyclable trash could be a huge component to the rising contamination rates, making the sorting process more difficult over time.
Some communities, but not many, do still use the dual-stream system. But some areas that have switched to single-stream are making the return to dual stream recycling with the hope that it will increase purity.
The Cost of Convenience
With foreign buyers sticking to their low contamination rates, the recycling industry is struggling to sort the high volume of materials they receive into pure recyclable materials that they can sell.
Without the ability to sort the high volume quickly and efficiently enough, materials are getting sent to landfills and incinerators, defeating the purpose of collecting more materials in the first place. In some cities like Philadelphia, more than 50% of recyclables are being sent to incinerators.
Less Is More
Consumers have been encouraged to be more responsible and knowledgeable about what they place in the recycling bin.
Not only do people not know what’s recyclable, but the current collection and compacting methods may also cause materials to become unusable once they reach the MRF. Paper becomes stained with liquids, glass gets broken and grinded into other items, and metals become mixed and separated.
But the United States is still producing nearly 2,700 lbs. of waste a year per person—and an estimated 75% of that is recyclable.
The recycling industry is certainly not going away—not only is there a social and environmental need for it, but there is still economic value in it as well. The industry is still worth an estimated $110 billion.
A return to dual-stream recycling might just be a viable answer—but so is better education for consumers about what can and can’t be put in the recycling bin. The best solution to improving the recycling industry is enacting as many potential solutions as possible. Now is the time to become diligent and find the answers so that we can continue to succeed together as an industry.
We will continue to stay on top of the latest trends in the recycling industry and provide the timeliest updates to our readers. Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry, we are here to help you navigate through all the recyclable import changes. If you handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill supply via our website or phone at 866-333-BERG. Talk to us about purchasing all your scrap paper, plastic, metal, textiles, glass grades, e-waste, and any other materials. Make sure to check out our new consulting department as well to help you navigate through any issues you might have.