Single-Stream Recycling Highlights Challenges in Resource Recovery

Single-Stream Recycling Highlights Challenges in Resource Recovery

Offering convenience to consumers in the form of not having to separate curbside waste streams, single-stream recycling can reduce recyclables quality and places burden on resource separation on MRFs.

Not all waste is created equal. As communities face and address challenges of decades-old landfills that are wearing down their remaining years of use, solutions need to be found to more effectively deal with the varieties of waste that are ultimately created. From paper fibers (like Office Corrugated Paper, Newspaper, and other Mixed Paper), plastics (like HDPE, PET, LDPE, and other Mixed Plastics), metals (like Aluminum Cans, Steel/Tin Cans, and Other Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metals), to organic waste and more, waste stream characteristics are as diverse as the communities that create them.

Overall, recycling is a great example of the Triple Bottom Line, as it handles waste with overwhelming and broadly positive outcomes—whether it’s reducing harmful pollution, turning waste into an economic resource, or preventing the growth of unappealing landfills in communities. But even considering these benefits, results can be mixed depending on the infrastructure and ways in which waste is ultimately recycled.

Single-stream recycling programs may provide consumers an easy way of increasing their recycling efforts, but they also impact the quality of materials that can ultimately be recycled, given that certain recyclable materials don’t mix ideally with each other.

“As we often say, you can’t unscramble an egg,” says Susan Collins, director of the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. She says what single-stream wins in volume, it sacrifices in quality.
“In terms of preserving the quality of materials so that the maximum materials collected can actually be recycled, single-stream is one of the worst options,” she says.
Collins adds that about a quarter of single-stream recycling goes to the dump. For glass, that loss can be as high as 40 percent.
Even so, in the constant tug of war between quality and convenience, convenience wins. But as single-stream processing continues to increase in popularity, the trade-off will be fewer recyclables recycled.

Team Gemini and its partners look for ways to maximize both quantity and quality in recyclables. From integrating sophisticated MRF equipment that aids in effective sorting of waste, to collaborating with local stakeholders and authorities to study waste stream characteristics and maximize waste from clean sources, many components come together to ultimately provide as much quality as possible while still aiming for high quantity.

By its very nature, this is an ongoing and evolving effort, as the project will be impacted by future advancements in recycling programs and policies, as well as the changing nature of surrounding communities that provide the sizeable potential of over 1 million tons of Mixed Municipal Solid Waste every year.

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