Q&A: Single Stream vs. Separated Recycling

I received these questions on Facebook, and you may have the same questions, so I am sharing this Q&A for all.

– So you’re saying the curbside recycling ends up in the landfill, but if we take it to the local drop off containers that doesn’t end up in the landfill?

– Is there any evidence that the recycling ends up in the landfill?

Most of what I’ve read indicates that approximately 25% of single stream recyclables end up going straight to the landfill.  We don’t have any oversight at Pratt, so we don’t know exactly how much of ours goes in.  If you think about it, it makes sense: if a person puts, for example, a used pizza box into their recycling cart, it contaminates the rest of the material in the cart. Now, most or all of that cart won’t be recycled.  We’ll still pay the increased rate of $65 (current, could raise further at any point)/ton instead of the $25/ton for the landfill. Similarly, consider this: if I recycle my newspapers in the same bin as my aluminum cans but don’t rinse and dry those cans before tossing them in with everything else, the paper (and any cardboard) can get contaminated.  My contaminated material gets dumped in the truck, and then my neighbors gets dumped in too.  More mixing of materials = more contamination. So we pay $65/ton, and all that contaminated material goes to the landfill. Even if we’re all making our best effort not to contaminate materials, accidents happen (single stream makes that easy too), and the result is still the same. Single stream curbside recycling is convenient because we don’t sort our materials.  But someone still has to do that work—machines and/or people (at the MRF)—and it’s never as effective as a system that doesn’t mix recyclables in the first place. As I understand it, when single stream first became popular (in the early 90s), this was less of a concern because China was willing to accept materials that were somewhat contaminated (ex. bulk paper barrels that didn’t have to be completely clean). Then, they stopped. And now they’ve stopped accepting our recyclables altogether.  This has driven the cost up and affected what does or does not get recycled.  When we sort the materials ourselves and recycle them via a container system as opposed to through single stream (mixing them all together), there is less contamination and more recyclable material makes it to the MRF rather than the landfill. I believe that we have an obligation to be good stewards of the environment.  So separating my recyclables and depositing them at an appropriate facility is something I am personally willing to do and something that I hope our fellow residents will as well. We will be launching a reduce, reuse, recycle educational campaign to help people understand how they can have the biggest impact on the environment, which I also think is important because reducing waste and reusing non-recyclables is just as important as recycling.  Also, our Community Relations Specialist is putting together some FAQS for the website that will address questions like what to do with cans. Stay tuned for that.

Read my original post on ending curbside recycling and my previous Q&A post on ending curbside recycling.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash