What can communities do to increase recycling rates? Some think the answer is to let residents throw everything into one receptacle — yes, everything. That includes the leftovers from last night’s dinner, the newspaper you read this morning, and the cereal box you just finished.

It’s known as “one-bin collection,” and it’s a trend that’s popped up in the past year or so. To be clear, it’s not the same as single-stream recycling, in which all recyclables are placed in one container and then later sorted at facilities into categories such as plastic, paper and metal. In single-stream recycling, trash is collected separately. (In contrast, dual-stream recycling has the consumer sort different types of recyclables into different bins, typically newspaper in one and metals, plastics, glass, etc., in another.)

Separating trash from recyclables helps ensure that the recyclable material isn't contaminated. Photo: Shutterstock
Separating trash from recyclables helps ensure that the recyclable material isn’t contaminated. Photo: Shutterstock

Despite many pluses, single-stream recycling has come under fire for issues of contamination.  One-bin collection, however, takes contamination to a whole new level. “Paper that was in a container with baby diapers is not going to be usable,” says Scott Horne, general counsel and vice president of government affairs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a trade association that represents more than 1,600 companies in 21 chapters nationwide that process, broker and industrially consume scrap commodities, including metals, paper, plastics and glass.

ISRI officially came out against one-bin collection last year, amid concerns that it takes recycling backward instead of forward. “By mixing solid waste and recyclables and then trying to segregate them at what is commonly referred to as a dirty MRF [materials recovery facility], you are very likely to A) greatly diminish the quality of the recyclables because of the contaminants, and B) greatly reduce the amount of material even available for recycling,” Horne says.

Last year, as the city of Houston considered a one-bin collection policy, supporters argued that it would reduce trips for garbage and recycling trucks, decrease the amount of waste sent to landfills, and convert nonrecyclables into energy.

The problem with that last idea, Horne says, is that energy recovery does not equate to recycling. Supporters are saying “if the paper or plastic is not suitable for recycling, well, gee, we can throw it into the incinerator and get more energy value out of it,” he says. “Energy is not recycling. That material is now gone forever, which means we are going to have to use more virgin resources.”

As for driving up recycling rates, sure, that’s true on paper. If everyone in town has a garbage can, then you’ve automatically got a 100 percent recycling rate. In reality, though, each household is recycling much less in terms of weight and volume. Plus, people are entirely disconnected from the process of identifying recyclable material.

“Part of the problem is they see all these ways they can achieve goals or requirements and save money, so to speak, but in reality, if they were to institute a well-run program, then they could actually have a profit center on their hands so far as recycling is concerned,” Horne says.

It’s this shortsightedness that ISRI hopes to highlight — and change — in coming out against the commingling of trash and recyclables.

“One-bin collection jeopardizes the quality of recyclables by mixing them with liquids, food, chemicals and other waste,” says Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “Materials that are altogether destroyed will be diverted to landfills or incinerators, lowering recycling rates and damaging the environment. Simply put, one-bin collection is not good for recycling.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

By Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of publications, covering everything from sustainability to fitness to travel. Read more of her work here.