Single-Stream Recycling: The Cost of Convenience

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Remember when you had to sort your recyclables? Paper, cardboard and newspaper in one bin. Plastic, glass and tin cans in another. Businesses had to do it, too.

But in most municipalities across North America, those days are long gone.

We now have “single-stream” recycling. Everything goes in one giant bin, to be collected be a waste management truck and hauled off to a materials recovery facility, or MRF. It’s much more convenient for the environmentally responsible consumer or  eco-minded commercial enterprise.

But is it the best option?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Every day, workers and high-tech machines at the MRF process hundreds of tons of recyclables into feedstock which can be used in the manufacture of new products. And the amount of materials sent to MRF’s has increased exponentially over the last several years.

Fantastic! Sounds like a no-brainer.

But, unfortunately, some of that collected waste still ends up in a landfill.


Common items received daily at the MRF: greasy pizza boxes, plastic bags and garden hoses — none of which are recyclable.

Not-so-common items received surprisingly often at the MRF : dead snakes, bowling balls and bathtubs — also not recyclable.

Altogether, about one-fourth of all refuse collected by single-stream recycling goes to the dump.


An even bigger problem for MRF’s is contamination. Single-stream recycling often results in wet paper and bits of broken glass that can’t be sorted.

Susan Collins is director of the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a nonprofit research and advocacy group. She’s not a big fan of single-stream recycling because, as she will often say, “You can’t unscramble an egg.”

According to Collins, what single-stream wins in volume, it loses in quality.

The Sheer Volume

It does, indeed, win in volume.

One Canadian study, using data from 223 provincial municipalities over a 10-year period, concluded that the introduction of single-stream recycling increased recycling rates 4.11% more than the introduction of multi-stream recycling. In other words, folks who are inclined to recycle anyway are even more likely to do so with single-stream.

By Holger Ellgaard via Wikimedia Commons

And then there are places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, where recycling volume climbed almost 40%  in the first three months of the city’s single-stream recycling program. Trash collection in Grand Rapids declined by 12.3% during the same period.

They’re not alone. As reported by Scientific American, environmental advocacy group Greener Pittsburgh claims that “[o]n average, at least 50% more recyclables are collected with single-stream recycling.”

Considering the amount of waste Americans generate, those numbers are huge.

But At What Cost?

One primary motivator for adopting single-stream systems was the financial savings expected from reduced collection costs.  But while collections costs are definitely lower with single-stream, processing costs are much higher.

After all, MRF’s have to pay for extra workers and more high-tech gadgetry to sort the materials. Not to mention the multiple times a day machinery must be stopped to clear jams caused by non-recyclables. All of that costs money.

In fact, the 2015 Canadian study concluded that processing costs for single-stream recycling were 48.7% higher than multi-stream systems. And the CRI has determined that “[o]verall, single-stream costs about $3 more per ton than dual-stream.”

Another significant concern is that the resulting scrap material quality (and hence, revenue) is lower under single-stream collection. There is a particular concern that glass shards and PET bottles can contaminate paper loads and wreak havoc in a paper mill.

The following Waste Management video clip demonstrates the multi-step sorting processes required at a single-stream facility:

Where Do We Go from Here?

So the question remains, is single-stream recycling the best option?

Certainly, the numbers indicate it’s the more popular option. Given that, is it realistic to expect U.S. consumers and companies to revert to the relative inconvenience of multi-stream recycling?

Probably not. That is, not without some sort of government regulations, similar to those enforced in European countries.

But for the majority of Americans, in the battle between quality and convenience, convenience is likely to win out every time.


Container Recycling Institute

Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute

Scientific American

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