Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Single Stream Recycling

After a very green Thanksgiving, spent volunteering at the local homeless shelter, our family's 10th year of the tradition, I came home and watched some NFL football at my parents house.  Tony Romo and the Cowboys were given quite a scary by the wily Miami Dolphins squad, but they pulled it out in the end.  My father asked me to take a bag of garbage down to the trash and next to his garbage barrel, was another one marked "single stream recycling."  This was news to me, so I decided to research more.

Single stream or "fully commingled" recycling basically means that all recyclable materials: papers, plastics, glass, metals are combined, and then sorted at the recycling facility.  Traditionally, separate collections of paper and other materials was the norm, and required separate containers.  I think the new single-stream method is far superior and offers significant benefits, but obviously these come with added costs.

The benefits end up making recycling more attractive.  People are busy and if a process requires too much time, it will simply be cut out, even by those with the best intentions.  Separating and maintaing different locations for different types of recyclables is a time consuming process and many people may simply opt to throw everything into the garbage instead of bothering with sorting.  Single-stream makes it much easier, since all recyclable material is combined, making recycling much easier for people to implement.  Collection costs go down as well since trucks can simply combine all materials together, instead of needing separate locations for paper or glass only. 

The downside is that all new things come at a cost.  There is the capital investment required to produce new containers and to educate people about the new system.  Then there are extra ongoing costs for processing the combined recycling into separate piles.  Another legitimate concern is the fact that the recyclables will be contaminated by extra dirty things being thrown in due to careless recyclers.  For example, if paper is contaminated it can only be recycled to a lower quality use.

The chance to increase recycling, by making the process easier, far outweighs the added costs.  The costs could be funded by other recycling taxes such as bottle deposits or a small tax.  Any reasonable measure to increase recycling participation should be considered and gradually implemented.

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