Recently, the recycling authority serving my hometown of Farmington Hills, MI, the RRRASOC – the Resource, Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County, went to single stream recycling. Single stream recycling is a system in which all recyclables, including newspaper, cardboard, plastic, aluminum, junk mail, etc., are placed in a single bin or cart for recycling. These recyclables are collected by a single truck and taken to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) to be sorted into various commodity streams for sale to markets, where it is processed into feedstock which can be used in the manufacture of new products. Here is a picture of our new 96 gallon cart, which is 82 gallons larger than our old bin.
Until recently, the predominant form of curbside recycling in the U.S was “dual stream” collection where each material type is kept in a separate bag or bin, and trucks have three or more compartments. The move to single stream recycling is a way to reduce costs. On the collection side, the use of a large roll-cart allows collectors to automate pick-up from inside the truck cab, and single-compartment trucks save labor and transportation costs. (See, Single Stream Uncovered by Clarissa Morawski, Resource Recycling, Feb. 2010). Due to the ease of use and larger bin sizes, cities often see an increase in recycling rates. In areas where single stream recycling is offered, participation is around 95%. Ann Arbor, MI had a 20% increase in recycling tonnage after implementing single stream recycling in 2010. Unfortunately, that 20% increase was 40% short of projections and caused Recycle Ann Arbor to request an increase of over $107,000. Ann Arbor’s single stream recycling system cost over $4.6 million to implement and, based on the overly optimistic projections, was expected to take 7 years to repay the costs.
The real complaint against single stream recycling is an increase in contaminants, causing a decrease in value for the recycled materials and an increase in the amount of previously recycled materials going to landfills. The Blue Heron Paper Company saw the level of contamination go from 3.3% in 1999 to 6.1% in 2005. This caused them to send over 11,000 tons of material to landfills in 2005, up from 5,200 tons in 1999. However, by implementing a consumer education program and investing in new technology at the material recovery facility, the Metro Waste Facility in central Iowa was able to keep contaminant levels to 3%.
Michel E. Hoffman of Wunderlich Securities points out one of the other possible downsides of single stream recycling. He believes that the move to single-stream recycling could have consequences. Hoffman says, “There are a lot of small- and medium-sized companies that will have to think about building single-stream MRFs. Some won’t have access to capital. Those who do have capital may not want to risk it. The alternative would be to sell to a larger competitor. So as single-stream processing matures, it may fuel a new wave of consolidation in the waste industry.”
The recession of 2008 has led to reduced city budgets. This has only sped the adoption of single stream recycling due to its lower costs. With this pressure on government to reduce costs, despite its mixed success, despite increased contaminants and increased consolidation (leading to less competition) it looks like Single Stream recycling is here to stay.