ReLoop: What is Single Stream Recycling?

As part of our increasing work in recycling and recovery, Project Associate Danielle Peacock and Senior Manager Anne Bedarf are debuting a new recycling blog series, ReLoop, which will address different recycling topics, questions, and concepts. Danielle kicks the series off with a primer on single stream recycling. If you have a specific recycling topic you would like covered here in the future, let us know!

There are three primary ways to collect household recycling: single stream, source separation, and no separation from trash (or “all in one”). Each of these methods poses unique benefits and trade-offs for recycling. This first installment of ReLoop tackles single stream recycling, which is quickly becoming a national trend.

Single stream recycling requires households to use two separate collection bins for their waste, one for trash and one for recycling. Residents place all of their recyclable materials in one bin, separate from their trash container.1 On collection day, the materials are transported to a Material Recovery Facility, or MRF. The MRF will use a combination of hand sorting, sensors, magnets, and gravity to sort the materials. You can find a great animation of how a MRF works here. After sorting, the materials are baled and sold to market.

Many communities are transitioning to recycling carts that are of equal size to trash bins. This enables and encourages residents to collect more recycling than they could fit into a small tote bin or bag. Communities may even use the same trucks to collect trash and recyclables, minimizing any additional transportation or operating costs. The same truck may pick up your trash one week and recycling the next. Trucks can also be designed with dividers, so that trash goes in one section and recycling in another.

The Good: Putting all recyclable materials into one container makes recycling easier for households. Ease of use, and the prevalence of large bins, allows high collection volume. Participation in recycling is also incentivized when communities reduce trash collection to twice a month and provide increased recycling collection to compensate.

The Bad: While volume is increased, the quality of the materials that are recovered can suffer. When recyclable materials are lower in quality, they fetch a lower price at market and may be used in lower quality products. For example, if a glass jar full of sauce breaks during the recycling process, the sorting equipment may not catch the glass and the sauce will contaminate other materials, like paper. Sorting is also an imperfect science, though the technology continues to evolve.

It is important to place empty and clean materials into your bin, and follow all recycling instructions provided by your community. If you have any questions or comments about single stream recycling, leave us a comment below!

1. The US EPA definition of single stream recycling: “Single stream” collection programs allow participants to put all recyclable materials (e.g., paper, bottles, cans, etc.) into one collection container… These materials are then collected and separated, usually at a central point such as a materials recovery facility (MRF)… For single stream recycling to work, the processing facility must sort the recyclable materials properly and thoroughly to meet market specifications.”


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