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Recycling a plastic bottle.

Is Single-Stream Recycling Worth It?

How Single-Stream Recycling Works: Balancing Convenience and Quality

It sounds easy enough: throw all of your recyclable items into a blue bin to take out on recycling day. But what happens if a glass bottle breaks? Or you forgot to break down that greasy pizza box?

Single-stream recycling makes it simple for consumers to recycle. You no longer have to sort paper, plastic, cardboard and glass into separate containers to take to the curb. In theory, this should increase recycling and diversion rates. But the convenience comes at a cost. Confusion about what can and can’t be recycled along with contamination leads to issues at recovery facilities.

Recycle Across America Logo

“Although mixed recycling (single-stream) isn’t ideal for the porous recyclables such as paper, cardboard and glass materials, it isn’t the reason for the crisis with recycling. Mixed recycling can work, when people are recycling properly. The greatest amount of contamination comes from ‘garbage’ being thrown in recycling bins in general.”
Mitch Hedlund | Executive Director, Recycle Across America 

To sort out the pros and cons, we spoke to Mitch Hedlund from Recycle Across America and Kara Pochiro from the Association of Plastic Recyclers. 

What is Single-Stream Recycling?

Single-stream is a recycling process that doesn’t require consumers to do any sorting. All recyclable items are placed in the same bin and mixed in the collection truck. These materials are later sorted out at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). This method is also called commingled or single-sort recycling.

What Items are Accepted in Single-Stream Recycling Programs?

While there may be restrictions in some areas, most programs accept the following items: 

  • Plastic Bottles
  • Paper
  • Cans
  • Clean Aluminum Foil
  • Cardboard
  • Paper Bags
  • Clean Glass Jars and Containers
  • Magazines, Catalogs and Newspaper
  • Shredded Paper
  • Empty Prescription Drug Bottles

It’s always best to check with your city’s Public Works department or recycling company to learn exactly what’s recyclable in your area.

“Communities work with their MRF to determine what can be collected and sorted at their facility. The most common programs collect #1, 2 and 5 plastics, aluminum, steel, paper, cardboard and glass.”
Kara Pochiro | The Association of Plastic Recyclers

How Single-Stream Recycling Works

Once recyclables are placed in curbside bins, collection trucks bring the materials to the floor of an MRF. There, machines and employees divide all the materials into categories. Sorting methods can vary between different facilities, but conveyor belts, screens, forced air, magnets and scanners are all used to identify and group materials together. 

Single-Stream Recycling Sorting Process:

  1. Materials are unloaded from trucks and placed onto a conveyor belt, where employees remove all non-recyclable items manually. 
  2. Recyclable items are transferred onto a series of deck screens. Here, heavier items drop through to the bottom screens and leave paper, cardboard and lighter materials at the top. 
  3. Heavy materials are sent under a magnet to remove metal items like cans or tins. 
  4. Staff at the recovery facility double-check no items have mistakenly crossed paths and been sorted into the wrong category. 
  5. Workers sort everything on the light layer of screens into separate containers for paper, cardboard and newsprint. 
  6. Once all recyclable items are in their assigned bins, they are shipped to a recycling facility to be processed into new material.

Sound Too Good to be True?

While it’s convenient for consumers to toss everything in the same bin, the sorting process for single-stream recycling isn’t perfect. Machines and employees at recovery facilities can make mistakes and contamination is a rampant issue. The end result is often a lower-quality recycled product, and in some cases, a contaminated batch must be sent off to the dump. 

“Single-stream recycling definitely leads to more material being collected, but there are issues with contamination. People are often confused about what exactly they should put in their cart, and if items are highly contaminated they can’t always be recycled. Package design is also an issue. Many packaging components can affect recyclability.”
Kara Pochiro | The Association of Plastic Recyclers

Advantages and Disadvantages of Single-Stream Recycling

Pros: Cons:
  • Easy for consumers to participate in recycling programs.
  • Increases diversion and recycling rates.
  • Efficient collection as trucks accept all items.
  • Allows MRFs to process more materials in a shorter period of time with the help of technology.
  • Decreased garbage collection costs - as there's typically less to dispose of.
  • Increase in contamination of recyclables at recovery facilities.
  • Manual sorting process and equipment required at MRFs.
  • Lower quality of recycled materials due to mixed collection.
  • Difficulties recycling all items, ex. glass bottles often break during collection and sorting.
  • Increased cost to sort commingled material.

How to Avoid Single-Stream Recycling Contamination

To help recycle right, Hedlund says to do the following:

  1. Always recycle every empty metal can, plastic bottle and jug.
  2. Place clean paper and newspaper in a paper bag before putting it in the recycling bin. 
  3. Only recycle clean and empty glass bottles and jars.
  4. Never put plastic bags or plastic wrap in the recycling bin. 
  5. Contact your county to find out where to properly recycle items like batteries, shredded paper and prescription medication bottles. 
  6. Don't dispose of any food waste, dishware or drinkware in a single-stream recycling container. 
  7. Pay attention to labels, and place standardized versions on bins you use to avoid confusion.

 

Recycling Across America's standardized recyciling bin labels.

 

Why Single-Stream Recycling Programs Remain Popular

Recycle Across America Logo

“Most of the densely populated areas of the U.S. migrated to the mixed recycling (single-stream) system and now we have to live with it for a while. Therefore, it’s absolutely critical that we make it easy for the public to start recycling right.”
Mitch Hedlund | Executive Director, Recycle Across America

Although no system for recycling is perfect, single-stream has had major impacts on cities that have adopted it as part of their waste management plans. Some areas report seeing a 50 percent increase in recycling production after making the switch. If your city doesn’t offer single-stream recycling yet, keep an eye out for proposed plans. Until then, happy sorting! 

Read our One-Stop Guide for Recycling Information to do your part to increase recycling rates and reduce contamination.