When It Comes to Recycling, Is It Better to Be Single?

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The initial benefits of single-stream recycling may result in problems down the line, according to a new study by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI).

After one year of piloting a single-stream recycling program in the residential halls, the University of Colorado at Boulder switched the program to dual-stream.Photo: University of Colorado at Boulder

Single-stream allows you to throw all of your recyclables into one bin, making the first step to recycling an easy one. Also, single-stream significantly reduces costs because more material can be collected with less labor and distance traveled. The study shows that about $10-15 per ton is saved in the single-stream collection process.

“That is why single-stream just exploded,” says Clarissa Morawski, principal of CM Consulting and researcher for the report.

However, when you look at the recycling process from start to finish, the CRI study reveals that single-stream may not be more cost-effective in the long run. Materials mixed together can become contaminated and lose product value. Soiled materials can also create problems during the manufacturing process, leading to lost productivity and expensive repairs.

“In this test of the recycling-market, the single-streamers were the ones left holding the material,” says Morawski.

After one year of piloting a single-stream recycling program in the residential halls, the University of Colorado at Boulder switched the program to dual-stream, for many of the same reasons cited in the study.

“It made it easier for people to collect the recyclables,” says CU’s Recycling Program Manager Dan Baril, in reference to the single-stream pilot program. “But all of the other negatives outweighed just the few benefits.”

“We’ve always focused on keeping our materials at the highest quality we can,” says CU’s Environmental Operations Manager, Edward von Bleichert.

Bleichert has noticed a rise in big players investing in recycling. He says there are paper mills that will no longer accept raw-wood fiber from a forest but can only accept reclaimed fiber from the recycling process. But, in order for a company see a recycled material as valuable, it needs to be quality.

“We have destroyed the paper by putting pizza sauce or something on it. We’re really not providing a quality material,” Bleichert says.

A second goal of CU’s recycling program is to ensure that the university does its best to minimize the demand for virgin resources. If you maintain the fiber in a piece of paper, for instance, it can have as many as seven lifecycles.

“If you take a piece of white paper and throw pizza sauce on it and the fiber gets so degraded that it has to be turned into a paper towel or a toilet paper roll, you are dooming it to either the landfill or a very short lifespan in the recycling stream,” Bleichert explains.

Although the university switched to a campus-wide dual-stream recycling program, the city of Boulder’s curbside recycling program switched from a dual-stream program to a single-stream program. The switch for the city may have in fact resulted in greater environmental benefits.

According to Bleichert, the city was not jumping at the chance to go single, but the city of Denver was offering to collect single-stream from Boulder residents. The switch was in part financial, but it ultimately allowed the city of Boulder to collect compost curbside, without adding any collection routes or the cost of gas.

“My point with everybody is that every single municipality, every single program has enough differences in how they do things, that the decision to go one way or another might just make sense for them,” Bleichert says.

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