Single Stream Recycling

Just saying or reading those words kind of makes my skin crawl, but as a woman of science I must look at the facts in an unbiased and open-minded way in order to make sound judgments.

So, what is “single stream recycling”? This is a method of recycling implemented in some areas around the US that allows you to put all of your recyclables into one container, rather than separating each thing (ie: plastic, paper, glass etc). These recyclable materials are sorted later for you at the collection facility by either machine or people or both.

When I first heard of this I had a pretty angry reaction – are people seriously THAT lazy, are we really THAT retarded that we can’t sort our recycling? Now we have to put it all in one bin and have someone else do it for us because it is beyond our capabilities to just do it ourselves? The second thought I had was how much increased labor there would be because now we need a lot more people at MRFs (materials recovery facilities) to sort our garbage for us.

But alas… I visited a MRF called Recology in San Francisco a few weeks ago (the garbage/recycling collectors here). After a great tour of their facility, and hearing about their commitment to reducing the waste that goes to landfill, and seeing their recycling center (and the enormous amount of material that still ends up going to the landfill), our tour guide informed us that single stream recycling is actually good. Recycling rates are up.    This method helps the cause of reducing volume that goes to landfill.

Why? Because with single stream recycling, these facilities and employees are better at sorting the recycling than you are. YES, there are PEOPLE sorting your trash. There are machines that can identify types of plastics and sort them accordingly. Magnets remove aluminum and other metals. People can sort through and remove unrecyclable materials by hand. Not just that, but with a single stream system, fewer trucks need to be on the road for the various materials, since all can be put in one truck. Additionally, if recycling is made so simple that you don’t even have to think about it, the more likely you are to do it. Labor is not that much more intensive because these people were probably already sorting through your already sorted recycling picking out the stuff that didn’t belong anyway.

Hmmmm… that makes a lot of sense, actually.

Waste Management has a short video about how it works. And here is a slightly longer video about Waste Management’s MRF in Philadelphia.

Since single stream recycling is gaining popularity and seems to be better for recycling rates, I suppose I should embrace it. That way, more of our garbage can be sold to China, so they can actually recycle it, then sell it back to us as more stuff for us to buy, then throw away again. Ah, the circle of life.


PS: Check your area before you start throwing everything into one recycle bin. Single stream recycling is not available everywhere… yet :)

PPS: I also highly recommend visiting a MRF if you ever have the opportunity. It really opens your eyes to just how much waste we produce. For example, Recology’s San Francisco branch moves 700 TONS of recyclable material through it’s MRF EVERY DAY. That is just… too much.


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