Unfortunately, as recycling grew in popularity, a race ensued to take control of the waste/resource stream. Losing control of your waste/resource stream is much like giving up your water, oil, gas, or mineral rights.
Haulers make more money, the more they haul, so they wanted as much volume as possible. Paper mills wanted to gain control of the paper stream. If that meant getting into single stream collection to capture it, then they would get into single stream.
Nationwide haulers and paper mills jumped to take over recycling collection programs. Prior to that take over, citizens were very involved in the recycling collection process and had a good understanding regarding contamination issues. Without direct involvement in collection of recyclables, citizen knowledge/concern regarding waste reduction, recycling markets and contamination, diminished, until now, the concerns are nonexistent.
Single stream collection swept the nation as a convenient way to “increase participation and get recycling rates up”. Single stream means all the items: glass; plastic; metals; paper are tossed together in the same compartment of the recycling truck. Glass breaks into shards and microscopic pieces, contaminating all the other products, as well as damaging equipment in re-manufacturing plants.
Liquids spill causing paper and containers to stick together. Citizens often place the wrong materials and garbage in their recycle bin. With automation there is no way every container can be checked before being dumped into the single-compartment recycle truck.
Another mishap was acceptance of all plastics, regardless of whether or not there was a market. It only takes a little Google search to see how few markets there are for # 3-7 plastics.
Much of the single stream and plastic mess ended up in China where workers picked through piles of America’s “recyclables” trying to retrieve some materials of value, like # 1 and 2 plastics. The Chinese grew weary and threw up The Green Fence, a term referring to their refusal to accept any more recycled garbage from the United States.
Last summer four of the U.S. major garbage/recycling haulers acknowledged the single stream contamination problems at Waste Con, their annual national conference.
Faux recycling does not pay financially, environmentally, or socially. It’s time we return to our recycling roots which were about using recycling as a hook to get us committed to a life-long conservation journey. That journey extended our concern to recycling markets, contamination of materials and safety of workers. Just as important, we made reduction and reuse much higher priorities than convenience.