Single Stream Recycling

A Little History

It’s important for you to know who profits and who loses from your community’s recycling collection system, so good for you for getting educated! First you need to understand the original curbside collection method. It was called curb-sort or multi-stream. With curb-sort or multi-stream the various types of recyclables (glass, plastic, paper, metals) were sorted at the curb into separate compartments on the truck.

This separation resulted in minimum contamination, thus providing end-users with high quality feedstock they could make into new products. End-users, also called re-manufacturers, are the companies that make new products from your recyclables. End-users are the most important players in recycling. If new products are not being made from your recyclables, then someone is pulling a fast one on your community.

What IS Single Stream recycling?

Single Stream recycling is a curbside collection system in which all paper, plastics, metals, glass, and other recyclables are dumped together in a single compartment truck. Glass breaks, contaminating everything. Contaminants such as beer, bleach, ammonia, ketchup, feces, motor oil, etc. spill all over everything.

Single stream recyclables are transported to Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), where they are sorted, baled, then shipped to end-users. MRFs sort and bale solid materials, NOT liquids. Of course, contaminates like tiny pieces of glass, metal, plastic, etc. end up in bales. Liquids know no boundaries, so of course they are everywhere. How do you think liquids affect the quality of paper bales?

Obviously MRFs can’t separate recyclables nearly as well as curb-sort or multi-stream, which keeps each type of recyclable in their separate compartments of the recycle truck. Single stream supporters insist that simplifying recycling for residents will increase recycling participation since they don’t have to sort recyclables themselves, and that it will save money due to reduced collection costs.

While collections costs are lower with a single stream system, sorting costs and the costs associated with disposing of contaminated recyclables are much higher.

“By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system”. American recycling is stalling, and the big blue bin is one reason why” – Aaron Davis Washington Post, 6/20/15.


CASE STUDY: Fayetteville, Arkansas’ current curbsort recycling program is one of the nation’s cleanest, with around a 2% contamination rate. A 2016 single stream pilot study in Fayetteville “reported” more than 18% contamination. That’s likely a very conservative number, but even at 18% that’s a whopping 16% reduction in usable recyclables, and a 16% INCREASE in what can end up in our landfills.

Single Stream Results

When single stream began, bales of contaminated recyclables were often sent to China, America’s largest importer of our recycling. They have taken the single stream mess for years, but no more. In 2012, China began refusing our trash recyclables due to contamination. Now the contamination conversation has reached an even higher level with an extreme ban on U.S. recyclables. On July 18, 2017, the Chinese sent a memo through the World Trade Organization stating they were cutting off several grades of paper and plastic from the United States.

Most Americans have not a clue what happens to their recycling once it leaves their curb, so you’re ahead of 90% of the U.S. population because you’re educating yourself!

More Problems with Single Stream

  • Single stream was initiated by the garbage hauling industry, an industry whose profit margin depends on continual waste generation, rather than waste reduction. See the conflict of interest?

  • If kept segregated in the collection truck your recyclables are valuable resources. If handled like garbage, tossed all together in a single compartment truck, the recyclables lose value. Allowing a garbage hauling company total control of your recyclable resources is like allowing a moving company total control of your valuables. Let’s say you had a computer to sell to an out of town customer. Would you allow FED EX, UPS, or the post office to toss your computer willy-nilly in the back of some truck? Would you allow them to tell you where they are taking your computer? If you wanted your computer to remain valuable you would have oversight in how it was being handled, and to whom it was being delivered. Why are we allowing our recyclables to be handled like garbage?

  • Dumping unlike recyclables into a single compartment truck obviously destroys the integrity/value of them. Single stream is a “kick the can” recycling program. China has obviously had enough of the contaminated bales coming from the U.S. Some of the contaminates include, but are not limited to coffee, beer, bleach, ammonia, nail polish, soda pop, motor oil, garden hoses, animal carcasses, animal feces and urine, broken pieces of machinery, etc.

  • Because of automation with single stream few bins get checked at the curb. If there is an animal carcass in a recycle bin it gets discovered at the sorting facility. What kind of messes are recycling workers being exposed to?!

  • Kicking the contamination to end-users increases your carbon footprint, as they try to clean up the single stream mess. Single stream has been a financial nightmare for end-users.

With garbage haulers in total control of the “recycle stream”, end-users are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they speak up, as the glass industry did, end-users risk having the garbage haulers pull their item from the curbside recycling collection program.

  • Shipping your recyclables half way round the world increases your carbon footprint.

  • Residential Recycling grew out of the 1970’s movement, “Live Simply so that others can simply live”. Recycling devolved. Recycling is now politicized, corporatized, and compromised. Instead of making recycling last, after REDUCE and REUSE, it has become the end all. Instead of making recycling more simple, low tech, and inexpensive, single stream has made things far more complicated and expensive. By using a single compartment truck, we are creating GARBAGE out of our valuable recyclables! Using a truck that trashes our recyclables by dumping them all together in a single compartment truck is both fiscally and environmentally irresponsible.

  • Dumping on countries lacking child labor and environmental laws is not kind or sustainable. For years much of the single stream mess has been shipped to China, the main importer of America’s recycling. Now with the Chinese bans on U.S. recyclables, there is an increase on recyclables headed to India and Vietnam.

  • Beware of new technology: incineration is NOT recycling. Some single stream facilities are being connected to Waste to Energy (WTE) facilities. WTE are incinerators that generate energy. If privately owned, good luck dropping by unannounced to see whether your recyclables are being baled up or burned up.

  • Single stream decreases citizen understanding of the recycling process, as well as their involvement. Single stream reduces consumer concerns for recycling workers.

One of the most important problems with single stream is it promotes the message, “it’s ok to consume as much as you like, as long as you recycle”.

 Lack of transparency in Recycling

In 2016 fourteen communities north of Dallas, with a total population of over 450,000 residents, were informed that their single stream recycling had been landfilled for almost two years. NO ONE knew? Fort Smith, AR, a community of 88,000 people, found out in the spring of 2017 that their single stream recycling had been going to the landfill for years. Again, NO ONE knew?

Citizens in Chattanooga, Sante Fe, Rhode Island, Houston, Savannah, and Atlanta were under the impression their single stream collected glass was being recycled. It was not; it was going to the landfill.  In 2017 residents in Portsmouth, VA discovered their recyclables had been incinerated, rather than made into something new.

“Recycling” means the systematic collection, sorting, decontamination, and return of waste material to commerce as commodities for use or exchange.”

Arkansas Code Annotated 8-6-603

Fayetteville, Arkansas’ current curbsort recycling program has a contamination rate of 2%. Fayetteville did a single stream pilot in 2016. Citizens were not allowed to view the recyclables being dumped from the single stream recycle trucks. One off-the-record source reported the single stream loads were so filthy that rats were jumping from the recycle trucks.

Did non-profit recycling collection companies switch to single stream for fear of losing their recycling collection business to a low-ball bid by big garbage haulers? Will the non-profits be able to risk telling the whole single stream story, without being put on a witness stand?

So, how has this mess been kept secret for so long? How serious is the lack of transparency problem? Well, a lot of the single stream loads were shipped to China, and other developing countries. Until now, U. S. citizens were more interested in convenience than transparency.

Single Stream needs to be eliminated, NOT glass!

Recycling glass vs. using virgin resources reduces mining waste by 80% and reduces water use by 50%. Single stream is what needs to be eliminated, NOT Glass. Not only does glass cause contamination problems for paper mills, plastic and metal factories, glass cannot be used when collected via single stream. During 2017 many curbside recycling contracts around the United States were re-negotiated, with glass being pulled from their single stream programs. Was your city one of these?

Solutions: Trough Trucks, Transparency, & Citizen Involvement

What Entrepreneurs, Engineers, and Investors can do:

Major garbage haulers’ single stream recycle trucks operate like garbage trucks, dumping all bin contents into a single compartment. What a mess. Below are ideas for those who want to design, build, and invest in 21st century recycle trucks that provide end-users with high quality feedstock.

  • Design and build recycling collection trucks that run on something other than fossil fuels.

  • Trucks should have separate compartments for each different type recyclable, thus reducing contamination rates to 3 % or less. Contamination rates WERE this low, before single stream.

  • Trucks should have a hydraulic trough in front of each compartment, so the employee only has to lift and dump one small segregated bin at a time, thus reducing repetitive motion syndrome.

  • Bins on wheels would reduce bending and lifting for both the customer and the employee. Paper needs to be covered, protected from rain, so it won’t mold after it’s compacted into a bale.

  • There should be separate bins for each type of recyclable.

What Citizens Can Do:

  • Whether using curbside collection or drop offs, citizens must reclaim their recyclable resources. That means you think about your recycling the same way you think about an asset you’d sell. You’d be protective of that asset. Get protective of your recyclable resources/assets. Get educated about them. Insist on rigorous continuous transparency regarding collection, processing, transportation, and sale of your recyclables.

  • Insist on immediate passage of a local recycling transparency/accountability ordinance. Though you can get some good ideas from AR HR 1043, it is only a resolution. You want an ordinance, which is legally binding. Review the section below titled, “Insist on the following terms from the entity collecting your recyclables”. Be sure your ordinance includes your state’s legal definition of recycling.

  • Review the difference in curb-sort/multi-stream collection and single stream. Educate your friends and decision makers about the problems with single stream.

Vocabulary clarification: curbside collection can be either curb-sort or single stream.

  • Insist on the following terms from the entity collecting your recyclables, whether it’s a private company or your local government:

    1. Haulers use hydraulic trough trucks with a separate compartment for each type of recyclable. If you want to provide end-users with the highest quality feedstock, don’t mix ANY unlike recyclables together.
    2. Citizens are allowed to make unannounced visits to the recycling facility where the recycle trucks dump, so citizens can actually see what those trucks collected. Citizens need to see the garbage that is being tossed in with recycling. Citizens will peer teach when told the truth.
    3. Collection of a recyclable item should not be allowed unless there is solid evidence of at least two secure and stable domestic markets. Otherwise you are promoting monopolies.
    4. Insist that garbage and recycling fees are listed as separate line items on your bill. You cannot sue for fraud unless garbage and recycling fees are listed separately.
    5. Citizens are encouraged to seek out communication from end-users that may be available through social media, radio, TV, newspaper, billing, etc. They should not depend on receiving that communication from the garbage hauling company, or even a government agency, unless they have a super vigilant, knowledgeable watchdog group in place. This group needs to understand the needs of end-users. Remember: end-users are caught between a rock and a hard place if they aren’t controlling the recycle resource stream. They could have their item pulled from collection if they complain.
    6. The entity collecting must sign a statement saying they have read and agree to your community’s recycling transparency/accountability ordinance.
  • Drop Off Centers are a great complement to a curbside program. If done right, drop offs are a cost effective way to teach about waste reduction, while collecting recyclables assets. If you design your drop off center to be beautiful, park-like, educational, and family-friendly, participation will be phenomenal. Citizens must be a part of the design, creation, construction, and maintenance if you want continually high participation. Visit the Drop Off Center Section and read about Recycle Signal, a once national model program. Its demise is as important to understand as its success.

  • Last, and most important, is an ongoing education program for all ages. This should be the umbrella of any program. Get volunteers of all ages involved, continually. Don’t dump another burden on school teachers. Louise Mann was a public school teacher, she knows the importance of maintaining a strong “civilian” volunteer core. For more on Mann’s unique ideas about setting up your educational infrastructure read the two Recycle Signal articles in the Resource section.

Make your community a national model in providing high quality
feedstock to end-users!

Watch this short video to learn more about the “Devolution of Recycling”:

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