Home > Learn more > Solid Waste > Single Stream Roundtable > Breakout Sessions

Single Stream: Closing the Loop
Taking A Whole Systems Approach
Sacramento, CA
May 23, 2005



Overview Design and Agenda Introduction

Morning Presentations

Benefits of Single Stream Challenges of Single Stream Recycled Product Manufacturing - What's the Future?

Afternoon Break-Outs

#1 - What Are We Building? #2 - Do We Have All the Right Tools? Thought Questions


Wrap Up Organizing Photos


What does the recycling system look like when we unhook from our day-to-day detailed work and look at it "from 30,000 feet up"? Bringing people from every recycling sector into each discussion - people who often had not talked with each other before - created new realizations and ideas that had not been obvious when people only talked to others in their own recycling sector.

We try to grab highlights below, but we'll be glad to add comments and further descriptions of the conversations from Roundtable participants. Just send us an e-mail.

Check out the flow diagram of the single stream recycling system that EPA-Region 9 created for comment and discussion.

Consider the Thought Questions we used to jump-start some of our ideas.

Sessions #1: What Are We Building? Future Recycling System Foreign Manufacturing Globalization
Sessions #2: Do We Have the Right Tools? Is Diversion Enough? Processing Technology Market Forces


1. What Would A Healthy California Recycling System Look LIke 10 Years From Now?

This topic was so popular that the large group broke into two smaller discussion groups to allow more people the opportunity to talk.

Group #1

Summary Comments

We need to create a shift in public education. There's a disconnect there, consumers are not understanding that the products they buy come from valuable resources.

We need to emphasize producer responsibility and expand advance disposal fees.

AB 939 is a piecemeal approach to recycling. It doesn't spread the obligations to all players. We need to move beyond obligating only local governments.

We expect to rely on more automation in the future.

We should develop partnerships between local governments and manufacturers. Recycling responsibility should be shared half and half. Representatives from each of these sectors in this group were very happy to be talking to each other.

We need to give incentives to manufacturers and processors to ensure a quality recycling system.

The Glass Packaging Institute is looking for pilot projects to develop better ways for collecting and processing glass.

Product design is not directly the problem. It still comes back to an issue of the cleanliness of the materials.

Comments from the Discussion

Observations -

  • Recovered material quality is getting worse, this causes problems at manufacturing mills, it's difficult to find a supplier who will treat glass as a commodity.
  • Right now there is a piecemeal approach to recycling instead of a whole systems approach.
  • Relying on optical technology for accurate sorting is expensive.
  • In California, single stream recycling systems are going to automation and much larger containers than what residents had used before.

Some Suggestions -

  • AB 939, California's law requiring local governments to achieve 50% diversion, needs improvements in order to spread obligations to include more of the players in the system.
  • Promote producer responsibility to ensure recycling of manufacturers' products.
  • Encourage consumer commitments to promote successful recycling - right now, consumers for the most part are disconnected from knowing what's going on in the system or how it works.
  • Design products for recyclability.
  • Create incentives for cleaner materials and more effective functioning of the recycling system, e.g. variable residential rates to encourage recycling, higher payments to processors for cleaner materials, incentives to recycling manufacturers, benefits at every stage of recycling for improving the system.
  • Further develop markets.
  • Publish Best Practices.
  • Evaluate single stream systems vs. dual stream systems and other recycling program configurations.
  • Educate households and businesses about how the recycling system functions and how best they can participate.
  • Develop better technology.
  • Create partnerships, such as between local governments and manufacturers.
  • Encourage treatment of recovered materials as "commodities rather than trash."
  • Develop glass industry pilot projects to research effective ways to process glass for use in recycled manufacturing.

Group #2

Summary - Top Themes

Who's responsible for recycling? Individuals are responsible and individual companies are responsible.

For California, the more control we have at the local level, the better because we don't know what will happen on the global level.

We need to shift public recycling education from "How" to "Why."

Go back to dual stream.

Emphasize stewardship - keep it in California.

Focus on resource conservation - give credits and incentives.

Comments from the Discussion

  • Recycling starts with the generator.
  • We must balance recycling requirements with markets because California's legislation puts the onus on local governments.
  • Mandate postconsumer content.
  • Emphasize fact-based decision-making.
  • Rates for hauling are looked at as a tax - this impacts recycling.
  • Hauling should be treated as a utility.
  • Collection companies should do due diligence on exported recyclables.
  • Focus on production/manufacturing using recyclables in CA.
  • Make recycling mandatory.
  • Create a system with incentives tailored to site/business/location.
  • Give awards for products designed to be more easily recycled.
  • Mills should design the MRF.
  • Local governments should use model contracts, RFPs and partner with manufacturers.
  • Rates should be based on residual amounts.
  • "Diversion" is pushed by the current system, not complete recycling, because municipalities are held responsible and they have control over landfills.
  • Educate the public regarding resource limits.
  • Develop Wet/Dry MRFs.
  • Improve conversion technology for energy and waste-to-energy.
  • Negotiate contract franchise fees with incentives for quality.
  • Improve separating technology to handle single stream to produce cleaner materials.
  • Make recycling part of a national energy plan.
  • Change the RMDZ program (offering incentives for recycling development in targeted zones) to push urban planners to include recycling.
  • Make manufacturers of recyclable materials more responsible.
  • Continue financial incentives such as for e-waste, the bottle bill, tire recycling.
  • The State should come out with a simple definition for resource conservation and find a way to measure success.

2. Can Foreign Recycled Manufacturing Offset Potential Domestic Recycled Manufacturing Losses?


Massive amounts of recyclable materials are being exported. Do people really care?

Why has the public bought into recycling? One major theme is to "save landfills." But the public is not aware that materials are being exported.

They're more likely to see news items about new businesses starting up in their area, so they think that's what industry is all about. They get the impression that recycling businesses are very successful. They're not aware of the problems. They don't realize how much is going offshore.

How can we keep tabs on the environmental impacts overseas created by our materials and also created by the manufacturers there that use our materials?

What's our goal? Do we want to be recycling or diverting?

Comments from the Discussion

Local governments are very effective at conveying the message of "Keep it out of the landfill" because that's what we've taught them. That's why recycling programs are now overwhelmingly focused on "saving landfills." With that goal, where the materials get recycled is not relevant.

The public has no idea that so much of the materials they recycle is being exported. In fact, many in the public have no idea how materials are recycled at all. It is not uncommon for them to believe that recycled products are made at the MRF or the local transfer station. They are not aware of the far-reaching supply chain for recycled product manufacturers.

The domestic market for recovered materials is different from the export market. For example, commingling plastics kills the domestic recycled plastics industry.

There is a wide disconnect between recycling and economic development. People think that jobs stop at the door of the MRF. They're not recognizing the jobs at recycled product manufacturing facilities or the taxes those industries pump into the local economy.

Cities want to build more residential housing now. They don't care about maintaining what previously were their industrial corridors.

Offshore pricing is the current driver in California's recyclable materials markets for both quality and quantity. Manufacturers are being forced into taking what China will take, at the same price that China will pay.

The State should give first right of refusal to domestic markets before export.

Prices for plastic resins are higher on the East Coast because there is more competition, there are more manufacturers.

Maybe there should be a policy addressing manufacturing needs. We need to know more about the environmental impacts of sending our materials overseas. China has serious water problems. These are the things that create wars in the future.

Environmental standards are being used as ANTI-competitive in global agreements. We need to push the United Nations for global environmental standards.

Shipping bales of paper fiber into China that contain plastic bottles because of poor sorting is aiding and abetting smuggling because it is illegal for postconsumer plastic bottles to be shipped into China.

The Chinese government has made major investments in paper mills so they can clean materials enough to use them. U.S. paper companies are competing against the government there, not against other companies.

We buy a lot of materials from Mexico, so our impact there is similar to China's impact on our markets.

There is a difference between "recycling" and "diversion" - they are leading to conflicting policies.

We need a reasonable collaboration of government policies for paper manufacturing. If you want to reduce logging, then don't also limit the other materials that paper manufacturers need.

3. Globalization: Are We At Its Mercy Or Can We Guide the Change?


Are we at the mercy of globalization? NO! . . . But . . . how can we change and guide our recycling program?

The U.S. is the most technological nation on earth, can move faster and change faster than any others, and we can maximize our "new" recycled products.

China and other industrializing countries are trying to grow to be like we already are.

The world does look to California for models.

Comments from the Discussion

In order to narrow down this huge topic, the group focused conversations on film plastics, supply/demand realities that lead to offshoring, chemical by-products of recycling, marketing and the supply chain, zone projects that encourage investment in certain areas, and the impact on jobs.

They recognized that globalization leads to interdependence, a perception that "the world is getting smaller," loss of the ability to be isolated, and horizontal relationships instead of the previous vertical relationships.

Globalization also gets into international relations; each country is independent and can opt out of agreements.

Increasing regulations in response to perceived problems with globalization can lead to isolation and job loss, especially for California.

Benefits of globalization include:

  • Increasing environmental justice
  • Being at the forefront of the recycling industry
  • Making positive changes in technology and policies
  • Developing training processes to empower people
  • Encouraging emerging industries and technologies
  • Developing new business relationships, such as PRCC making PET pellets to make PET bottles
  • Increasing U.S. flexibility
  • Encouraging investments when appropriate

Negatives of globalization include:

  • Dumping U.S. problems on other countries (e.g. waste) - need to ensure a level global playing field
  • Increasing the gap between rich and poor
  • Sending U.S. jobs overseas
  • Creating such decentralization of production that the U.S. could end up unable to produce for itself in the future

Globalization could be either a positive or a negative innovation.

  • Consumer choices are a huge economic driver.
  • We need to understand other cultures, not just throw money at problems.
  • Is it really cost-effective to go offshore?
  • We need to focus on educating the public about the changes taking place.
  • Much of what goes to China stays in China, e.g. PET, contrary to many assumptions that it is simply recycled there and returned to us.
  • We should look at economies of scale and decide what makes sense to recycle here and what should go abroad.
  • As energy costs increase, what do we do? It may not always be cheaper to buy from Asia.
  • We need to maintain high recycling standards in the U.S.
  • What are we going to do when overseas markets no longer want our materials but we have destroyed our domestic manufacturing infrastructure?
  • Maybe it's in our best interest to make sure our materials get top dollar in Asia. After all, there are no PET reclamation facilities west of Ohio, although now there are plans to build one here in California.
  • Maybe we NEED to lose some infrastructure while there's demand from Asia.

    Thomas Friedman observed in a recent opinion column that the world is getting smaller, political entities are quickly changing, and we need to recognize and proactively deal with globalization.

    Maslow's hierarchy suggests that other countries will develop better environmental laws as their standards of living rise.


Are we at the mercy of exports? Both yes and no. We definitely are influenced by them.

We can learn from others.

There are lots of opportunities for collaboration.

There are many untapped resources.

Rather than opposing globalization, we can drive it to create positive advances.

Asia makes us be better business people.

Globalization gives us new opportunties - we have great technology, the best manufacturing infrastructure in the world (although not the best recycling infrastructure).

In fact, we need to work on developing our recycling infrastructure. For that, we can learn from other countries. We have opportunities to create new collaborations, see the rest of the world as partners.


1. Is "Diversion" Enough? Are the Goals of Diversion and Recycling Compatible?


We need to create a Values-Index that brings everybody into the picture, creates a recycling system that acknowledges the obligation that everyone in the system has to make it run well.

Diversion is more dynamic than we thought. At the very least, we can give the concept of diversion credit for showing us where and how not to go in developing our recycling system. Is it a strategy or a goal, and which should it be?

We need to shift responsibility for the California recycling system so that it is not exclusively on local governments, but is shared among all sectors of the system.

The manufacturing mills say they can report their millage loss (how much material arrived at their dock that was unusable because of poor sorting) by jurisdiction in some cases, and to the state in others.

Comments from the Discussion

We need to look at the total waste stream.

Why are we differentiating between diversion and recycling? What is the true purpose of AB 939? The regulations are tied to jurisdictions, not to markets. AB 939 is good for jurisdictions and for haulers. It created markets for new commodities such as mixed paper, feedstocks to manufacturers have increased, the market has found new ways to use recyclable goods. Let's take the burden of responsibility off local governments and move to shared responsibility. Let's declare victory in achieving AB 939's goals and go on to the next necessary paradigm.

Has AB 939 increased or decreased jobs? Has it increased or decreased new companies? It certainly has increased truck and hauler jobs. From the haulers' perspective, AB 939 was very important. It keeps rates down, saves landfill space. But others think that "diversion" has not benefited California, has not increased jobs and industries.

We should have started with first developing stronger markets for recyclable materials. Then cities would have responded more appropriately to AB 939's diversion mandates. We need domestic markets for MRF products such as paper. We need a sustainable marketing policy coupled with environmental policies.

The hard part is how to turn the values that are needed for a strong recycling system into compelling slogans.

Is the residue at the mills counted in cities' diversion rates? No, it is not.

We need to create incentives for the mills to better deal with these residues.

Many favor a 75% diversion rate, but to get there we need a paradigm change. We should make state government a role model. Others emphasized the need to focus on zero waste.

Diversion numbers are estimates. The CIWMB is trying to improve tracking measures. Increasing the diversion goal makes sense, but we need to do a better job of documenting how much really is diverted. Does 75% diversion really make sense? We need to improve education about recycling and not just count beans to make it work. We need to develop a realistic diversion rate. Don't just dump trash on others.

But where are the materials going? There's too much focus on numbers and not enough on the products made from the materials. There is little value placed on where the materials go.

We're not maximizing recycling's potential. We're facing having to choose between Quality vs. Quantity. Downcycling is not diversion. We need to re-examine our policies as a state. We need to look beyond diversion, or link it to other global issues, look at a broader picture. We need to develop an all-encompassing policy to deal with waste. We need a state industrial policy.

Right now, China is getting the "junk" qualities of processed materials. Domestic mills are getting better quality because suppliers are committed to commercial businesses. When China no longer accepts low quality bales, this move to low quality MRF processing will come back to haunt us. We're lumping all our materials into garbage when they're not garbage - they're potential natural resources.

Don't let the sometimes outlandish ways of determining diversion numbers undermine the public trust. In some cases, cities can count e-mails as "diversion."

Factor in the amounts of materials lost from single stream (or other) systems at the mills. Find out from manufacturers what their real residual numbers are. Do we have a real problem? Would it make sense to change to disposal-based accounting (which would include materials disposed in other places, such as manufacturing facilities) rather than diversion? Mills could report their millage-loss back to jurisdictions or to the state. We need to develop methods to track lost materials. There needs to be more communication between mills and jurisdictions, increase information sharing.

Maybe we need a formula that balances diversion with the number of jobs created, highest and best use of materials, taxes brought in, and other factors. Maybe we need some sort of report card to measure local program success.

There's a lack of good recycling programs in schools, but we're still meeting our diversion goals.

The "curbside model" of recycling is not appropriate for businesses. It decreases their materials' value, when they are the "last best place" for high quality materials.

Common Themes

Build public/government/manufacturers' concerns into a diversion formula that equals increased value. Develop a "Values Index."

Diversion is more dynamic than we thought.

Should diversion be a goal or a strategy? "Diversion" was originally intended to be a strategy to push recycling, but it has become a goal. It is not sufficient as a goal for developing a strong recycling system.

How can we incorporate the highest and best use for recyclables, and should we?

Shift the recycling burden from jurisdictions to the state, or share the burden among all participants (local, state, manufacturers, haulers . . .).

Mills could report millage loss to governments so they can re-evaluate the recycling process

2. Can Processing Technology and Equipment Design Solve Manufacturers' Problems?


We can throw as much money as we want into the system, but that just shifts the costs from one sector to another.

What is important is not only the type of equipment you use, but also how you train your workforce on a daily basis.

Note how much equipment is improving. For example, optical sorters have become 6x better over the past few years. But some of the feedback loops are still missing, including for quality assurance.

Comments from the Discussion

Technology is improving but it's not there yet.

Generally, equipment can be divided into three types: sorting, optical, and robotic (more future than present). Optical sorting is now 6x better than 4 years ago. The newer generation of technology can work.

Film plastics such as plastic bags are a problem, but how much depends on each type of mill. Some solutions may include bagging the bags (so that they are easier to pull out of the sorting systems), taking bags back to stores, protecting paper by putting it in bags, and pre-sorting. There's not enough communication about film plastics. Do we need an ISO standard? Could optical equipment sort film plastics?

Some solutions to processing problems may be:

  • Routing already-sorted materials to the right manufacturers (e.g. retaining sorted glass from commercial establishments)
  • Using optical sort equipment for plastics
  • Creating simplicity at the curb

    You can do equipment testing, but quality depends on end-use specifications that need to be adequate for the materials coming in. A well-trained staff and good operations are as important as equipment. The more equipment you buy, the costlier your operation is. A lot depends on communication with customers. Europe's MRF technology is more advanced and also more automated.

    Truck compaction can be problematic for glass and paper.

    Are we only shifting costs? Is single stream really cheaper or is that a myth?

    We need sensible equipment focused on the end product. But how much do you want to spend? There is a need for R&D.

    There is concern about processors depending on Asian markets.

3. Are Market Forces Enough To Develop the System and Solve Problems?

(Or are there needs for legislation, regulations, financial incentives, tax credits, or other implementation assistance?)


Are market forces enough? No!

There is a disconnect between economic development and recycling market planning. We need to encourage better communication and collaboration between these different departments in local governments.

There is no "free market" in California.

We need to shift subsidies that still favor virgin materials and level the playing field for recycling. For example, people/companies are not aware of what's available to them through RMDZs (Recycling Market Development Zones).

Legislation and regulations should be different for different materials. Recycled content mandates can work, although incentives are preferable to mandates.

California recycling should take advantage of the types of grants that the Department of Conservation has been making that is helping to develop our recycling infrastructure.

We need to look at other materials, too, not only the ones most often collected in single stream systems.

Comments from the Discussion

Key Thoughts:

  • Recyclables are basic commodities, the raw materials for manufacturing.
  • We need to follow manufacturing needs to ensure recycling success.
  • Some of the considerations are whether materials come back to the U.S. as products, are manufacturers locally oriented, effect of transportation on costs and environment, where are manufacturing facilities sited?
  • Cost and public policy are moving manufacturing out of the U.S. What products can we make here cost-effectively now?
  • What are the true costs of the so-called "free market"?
  • There is no "free market" in California.
  • A reduced recyclables distribution area would reduce fuel use and costs.
  • Local markets are sustainable, can use recycled content.

    Additional Comments

    We can shift subsidies, similar to the ways that hybrid cars are now encouraged. SWANA has done a recycling incentives study. We should compare the lower mill cost vs. the cost to recycle. We could eliminate or give tax credits for sales tax on manufacturing equipment. We could emphasize government grants to develop recycling capabilities, such as DOC's $10 million annual grants that can tip the economics for infrastructure improvements. We should eliminate current subsidies that favor virgin product manufacturing.

    Land policies often discourage local manufacturing options, such as in some jurisdictions that are moving manufacturers out of previously-designated industrial corridors to make room for urban development.

    We need to work on correcting the disconnect between economic development and recycling policies that discourage local manufacturers.

    We need to publicize California's RMDZ program that gives incentives for job development in target areas.

    We need a lot more communication and collaboration between all parties, including local governments, collectors and markets.

    AB 939's goals and the parties directed to meet requirements are at odds with AB 2020's goals and parties.

    Reduce single-use products.

    Manufacturing of products leads to waste. Should we be looking at advance disposal fees? Recycled content mandates?

    Appropriate recycled content and approaches to recycled products varies by type of material. Beware of unintended consequences. Products need a level playing field and must meet consumer specifications.

    We should consider contracting for development of best practices.

    Use carrots and incentives, not mandate and sticks. Find successful business models.

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