The Hidden Waste of Single-Stream Recycling

Previously, we’ve discussed the benefits of source separated or multi-stream recycling, noting the various ways it can help both the environment and those who recycle. Today, we wanted to delve in a bit deeper, and speak specifically about the hidden waste and issues associated with single-stream recycling. While one of the most common forms of recycling, and certainly a form that’s simple and involves very few steps, single-stream recycling can detract significantly from the overall benefits of a recycling program, and make it both more costly and more difficult to reuse the recycled materials.

What are the specific issues with single-stream recycling? As a reminder, single-stream recycling is a form of recycling wherein recycling is separated from other waste, but every single type of recyclable is kept together and put in the same vessel. It’s a single-sort system, where all recyclables are placed in one mixed container. The recyclables are then picked up, and taken to a facility where they are sorted into various streams. At a glance, it may seem that single-stream recycling is not all that different from source-separated or multi-stream recycling, where the recyclables are sorted by type before being picked up and sent on their way. After all, the single-stream recyclables do eventually get sorted at a facility or processing plant. However, there are several hidden disadvantages to single-stream recycling.

For one, while pickup costs for single-stream recycling are lesser, because they can be gathered by the same truck and taken to the same location, the processing costs are significantly higher. This is because there’s extra effort and attention required to separate the different types of recyclables from each other, and many of them truly cannot be safely or easily processed together to be reused.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s evidence that single-stream recycling decreases the overall quality of the recyclables and affects the ultimate quality of how much can actually be recycled, and how much can be made from the materials. For instance, there’s evidence of a lowered quality of recycled scrap metal with single-stream recycling than you would see from a form where the materials are kept separate. There’s also reasonable concerns about cross-contamination between containers made of different materials, such as aluminum, glass, and plastic. Broken glass from glass recycling can contaminate paper recycling, and cause significant damage to paper mills as a result. In fact, the method of putting all recyclables together can cause any broken glass to contaminate a number of other recyclables, though it may have the highest level of impact on paper. Single-stream recycling can also increase the likelihood of non-recyclable materials ending up in the recycling bin, and contaminating an entire load of recycling.

While single-stream recycling may seem easier for consumers at a glance, the science makes it clear that advantages do not outweigh the costs, both in revenue and to the environment when otherwise perfectly good materials are contaminated and become unable to be reused. This information is often not considered, as many people consider all recycling to be the same or don’t know more than one type of recycling exists, but it’s vital to keep in mind when making decisions about how you recycle and the type of recycling programs you utilize.

Luckily, ZipEco is on the job. Our process allows residents to place their recycling separate from their waste without having to go through the recycling themselves and sort by type, but our professionals then carefully sort your recycling for you, ensuring it’s properly separated and free of food waste and other non-recyclables. ZipEco’s process works to eliminate the negative effects of single-stream recycling, while still making recycling as simple as possible for those who use our service, in order to provide the utmost benefit to both the environment and the residents of communities that utilize our recycling program.