As Single Stream Recycling Sweeps Long Island and the Nation, We Ask: “Is It Working?”

By Liz Skolnick

By now, many Long Islanders are probably familiar with a method of recycling called “single stream.” While some parts of the island still use “dual stream” collection, single stream has been swiftly replacing it in many areas over the past few years. For those who don’t already know, let’s start by going over the basics.

How does single stream work?

In contrast to the traditional form of collection involving two bins - one for metal, glass and plastic; one for paper and cardboard - with single stream recycling, everything can go into one bin. The cartons, bottles, cans, cereal boxes and old homework all go together in one spot. Sounds easy, right? Well, easier may not equal better. While single stream has many champions, revelations from industry insiders have given us reason to question whether it is truly the solution to recycling woes.

A question of numbers

One point of contention between supporters of single stream and of dual stream has been the recycling rates obtained with each method. Single stream supporters estimate that it has driven recycling rates up to somewhere between 30% and 50%. But if this sounds too good to be true, it may very well be. Dual stream advocates aptly note that this inflated number is the result of measuring only what’s collected at the curb. Yes, it may be the case that people are throwing more into the blue bin, but to get the full picture we also have to look at what happens further down the line.

What most people don’t know is that mixing all these materials together often results in “contamination” of recyclables. Contamination can happen, for example, when shattered glass or food grease coats paper and cardboard at some point in the recycling process, whether it be in your kitchen bin, during carter pick-up, or once it gets to the recycling facility. The glass shards or grease can contaminate whole bales of paper, rendering it non-recyclable. Despite the best intentions of dutiful home recyclers, contaminated material, or “residuals”, will simply get sent to landfill with the rest of the trash. In light of this widespread phenomenon, one can see how measuring at the curb can yield a much higher recycling rate than doing so after all those residuals have been factored out. Dual stream supporters argue that at the end of the day, keeping things separate actually results in higher recycling rates because it prevents this cross-contamination, thereby preserving more materials that can actually be turned into new products.

Single Stream Comes to Brookhaven

In 2014, the Brookhaven Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) made the switch to single stream recycling, with a $7 million investment from its operator Green Stream Recycling, LLC. This new system, the town reasoned, would increase recycling rates by doing away with confusing separation rules and adding a larger bin. Residents could now feel confident throwing all recyclables into that bin and letting the professionals sort it out later. Also anticipated was significant revenue gains from serving other Long Island municipalities, and a savings of $125 per ton of material for the town. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that this change has led to better understanding on the part of your everyday resident, of what is recyclable and what isn't.

Those impressive-sounding upfront recycling rates, and the incredible ease of the no-sort process are enticing - everyone wants this system to work - but they obscure some harsh realities. Though Brookhaven’s contamination rates have not been made public, broader studies show that single stream recycling leads to over ten times the amount of unusable residuals than multi-sort methods like dual stream. As Susan Collins, of the Container Recycling Institute, noted in an Interview with Fortune: “Single-stream is not the system that leads to the highest quality of recyclables. There are consequences if you mix [materials] together: you can’t unscramble an egg.” While some may reason that the technology simply hasn’t been perfected yet, it’s hard to imagine that this is simply a problem of mechanics — have you ever tried separating the grease from a cardboard pizza box? Now imagine “degreasing” 50 pizza boxes a minute.

The Bottom Line

So who actually wins out with single stream, and what is the end goal? Though single stream may not be as kind to the environment, it has certainly helped fill municipal coffers around the country. It’s also been a boon to recycling carters, who need less manpower than ever on their pickup rounds. But the appeal of the financial gains must not distract us from the truth - single stream is simply not a great method for producing clean materials, or protecting our environment and our communities from the proliferation of waste. It’s true that the two goals of strong economics and environmental health both need to be kept in view, but as our global community increasingly turns toward environmental stewardship, we need be more wary than ever when the scales are so clearly tipped in the direction of profit. If this system isn’t working, let’s not try to pass it off as the “magic bullet” it’s not. Let’s instead work to create solutions that make environmental sense, not just dollars and cents.