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Since the US election I have avoided reading opinion pieces until I stumbled upon one recently posted online through Waste Dive regarding the defense of dual stream recycling programs.
The author is Ted Onufrak, Executive Director of Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority in Bellefonte, PA who has over 25 years of experience in the solid waste and recycling industry. His argument is well founded and one that is commonly stated by other communities who have implemented dual-stream recycling programs.
The push for communities to switch to “single stream” or cart based recycling programs is overwhelmingly apparent in North America, and specifically in the US. Why is this happening?
A few factors influence this switch in household and curbside collection: the need to collect more material from residents, to reduce collection worker injury and to increase recycling program participation.
While these are important factors for program success, switching to single stream or cart based recycling collection has been coined as the new and improved recycling program. I grew up in a community where dual stream recycling was the norm and so I was a bit skeptical of this idea for collection “you just throw it all in one big giant container?”
Now that I have been a part of this industry for several years I am still slightly skeptical of the single stream argument, mainly due to who seems to be the main proponent of the switch to cart based service and why there is such a need to switch to single stream cart based service.
WHO SPONSORS SINGLE STREAM?
A lot of the sponsorship and grants that are helping to fund the switch to these mixed recycling programs are private industry partners. Whether it be their environmental responsibility program, product stewardship, worker injury or some other underlying motivator it is interesting to see industry organizations advocate so heavily for single stream and cart based collection.
Yes, you may collect more materials but it is proven that it also greatly increases the contamination rate of the recyclables being collected. The single stream debate is that the increase in collected materials and reduction in worker injury claims financially outweighs the increase in contamination and subsequent operating costs.
For arguments sake say that this is true, what would the carbon footprint be when processing dual stream recyclables compared to single stream recyclables? If single stream cart based recycling programs have shown sometimes double the contamination rates of dual stream recycling programs that would directly result in an increase in operating costs associated with processing single stream material.
It would be interesting to see an across-the-board comparison of both collection programs to analyze all aspects of collection and processing, apples to apples.
WHAT PROVOKES THE NEED TO SWITCH?
While you may think that you are gaining more program participation because residents can put all their recyclables in one large cart without the need to sort, you are losing a lot of the outreach that comes with curbside recycle bin collection (or manual collection) and increasing the need to “wishcycle” items.
There is a lot of outreach and education that comes from not collecting a resident’s recyclables on collection day and instead leaving a tailored message educating them on what item did not belong in their bin, and even why it doesn’t belong there.
These are teachable moments that allow for detailed information to be conveyed to residents and also increases the thought process associated with recycling. While recycling should be instinctual by now it should also not be a mindless reflex with no thought process behind it.
Dual stream or bin collection programs also educate the collection worker on what is and is not recyclable and prevents contamination from entering the processing facility in the first place. It also creates a better market for the materials that are collected which offers municipalities a better rate for their recyclables and possibly even more end markets.
If public education and outreach are the most valuable factors to program success then in my humble opinion, dual stream recycling in bins offers more opportunity to reach out and educate the public on how to recycle correctly.
That being said, every community is different from their collection capabilities to their processing capabilities.
This is not a statement of “dual-stream or no stream at all” it is simply a recommendation to consider the benefits of a dual stream recycling program before considering it as the old way we used to collect recyclables.