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
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
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
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
- How do decisions made at the local government level affect the
production of recycled products?
- How can single stream collection and processing benefit environmental
- 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
- 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,
- 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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