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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


Susan Kinsella, Conservatree

My Conservatree colleague, Gerard Gleason, and I have been interviewing people over the past two and a half years about single stream programs, asking questions such as:

  • What do you like about single stream?
  • What don't you like?
  • What works for you and what doesn't?
  • What ideas do you have for making it better?

In the course of these conversations, we have recognized some notable patterns:

1) There is no common definition of "single stream."

When people talk about their single stream programs, they range from ones that collect a limited number of materials to ones that collect a surprisingly wide range (such as San Jose, CA, that even collects clothing that then sometimes gets wrapped around the processing equipment), some that collect glass and others that don't, many that are automated and a few that are not, and a number of other variations.

What I mean by single stream for purposes of this Roundtable is programs that:

a) Tell residents not to bother sorting their recyclables, just

b) Throw everything into the same container, and

c) It will all get sorted out at the processor.

2) The second pattern we've seen is that people have very different impressions of single stream.

For the most part, collectors and local governments are very happy with it. They appreciate that it:

a) Brings in more recyclables,

b) Increases their diversion rate,

c) Reduces their workers' comp costs,

d) Reduces trucks on the road, and

e) Often allows adding another material stream.

Most say it's wonderful.

For others, though, especially many recycled product manufacturers, single stream is more problematic. They are more likely to talk about:

a) Poor quality feedstocks,

b) Reduced energy efficiencies,

c) Increased internal costs,

d) Lost access to recyclables,

e) Having to landfill significant percentages of materials they bought to make recycled products.

California and West Coast recycled product manufacturers say they value the volume promised by single stream collection and processing programs. However, the issues they are experiencing with recovered materials quality may limit their ability to maintain and expand markets for recycled products.

I thought, "How can there be such totally different viewpoints about the same system?" That's because of Pattern #3.

3) There seem to be a lot of conversations that I thought would be naturals that have not taken place.

Even though their materials are used to make recycled products, collectors and processors told us they had not talked much with manufacturers. Many local government people didn't know what their materials are used for and said they also didn't know much about manufacturing. Manufacturers said they hadn't had much opportunity to talk to processing equipment manufacturers or collectors or local government people who design recycling programs.

Most people were only talking to others in their own recycling sector and there was debate about whether people believed there really are problems created by single stream.

4) Most of all, I found that very few people were thinking beyond their own recycling sector to look at the health of the recycling system overall.

So I thought:

A. Let's bring everybody together so we can start those conversations that need to be carried on.

B. Let's recognize that recycling is a system and if part of that system has a problem, then we all have a problem.

C. And let's start talking - all together - about how to solve the problems so that we have a healthy recycling system that will only get better into the future and so that every part of the system benefits.

That is why we designed this Roundtable to emphasize evaluating problems and solutions by taking into account the functioning of the whole recycling system. We invited people to attend in order to consider:

  • How do decisions made at the local government level affect the production of recycled products?
  • How can single stream collection and processing benefit environmental sustainability?
  • Why are we hearing concerns from paper, plastics and glass manufacturers?
  • How can we address the issues without giving up the advantages of single stream?


Let's look at California's recycling system "from 30,000 feet up." This big picture overview will help us all, as recycling experts:

  • Consider California recycling as a whole, inter-related, collaborative system,
  • Focus on the benefits and challenges single stream recycling and processing bring to each recycling sector,
  • Get people from every recycling sector talking to each other, and
  • Develop plans for exploring practical system adjustments that maximize benefits to every recycling sector (e.g. should we meet again, develop a task force, focus on specific elements).

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