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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  


Over the past three years, we have talked with hundreds of people about single stream recycling programs in order to understand why they are so attractive to some and so problematic to others. Clearly, their popularity is rapidly changing the nature of recycling in North America. At the same time, we can see now that single stream might perhaps be more accurately perceived as but one response to a series of changing challenges and opportunities. The public is not aware of the sea changes happening in their community recycling programs and even most recyclers are uninformed about most of the details.

We have found surprisingly little long-term thinking accompanying these changes. Possibly this is true, in part, because recycling is a very present-oriented type of activity:

  • Materials are discarded every day and collected within very short timeframes.
  • Processors generally need to clear out their facilities every day to be ready for the next day's materials.
  • Manufacturers need recovered materials at hand "right now" to continually feed their equipment.

But, in addition to everyday activities, recycling is also a SYSTEM and that system needs long-term planning and consideration in order to keep its immediate functions continually operating effectively. As one processor observed about recycling's current status: "There's nobody driving this train."

In addition, recycling is a collaborative system: manufacturers need the materials that collectors collect and processors process in order to make their products. And collectors and processors need manufacturers that want to buy their materials or else the whole system fails.

Therefore, we have come to believe that recycling needs to be reviewed as a whole, interdependent SYSTEM to determine whether the changes that have been occuring in North America - including single stream collection and processing, focus on landfill diversion to the exclusion of other goals, and reliance on exports - can be expected to result in a continually strengthening and healthy recycling system.


While some seem to believe that simply raising the questions indicates opposition to the changes, that is not our intent. We are concerned about some of the effects we see developing, and understand the advantages of others. We recognize that a healthy recycling system will always be changing.

But our interviews have made clear that many conversations that seem to us to be "naturals" between recycling sectors have not occurred. That's why we developed the Single Stream Roundtable that took place in May 2005 - to create the opportunity to begin some of those discussions, as well as to raise the awareness of the need to plan recycling as a whole system.

Briefly, we issued an open invitation to recyclers from every system sector in California (plus those that interact with California markets) to gather in Sacramento to discuss the impact of single stream on recycling as a whole system. Since single stream has become the recycling program of choice for the majority of California communities and is being considered by most of the rest, we felt that California would be a good microcosm for observing and discussing its application, implementation, and implications, as well as for discussing potential improvements.


The May Roundtable far exceeded even our expectations, with strong attendance by California's top recyclers, myth-busting presentations, great discussions, and a clearing-the-air kind of hope and cross-sector collaboration that had not existed before.

Throughout the Roundtable day, we strongly encouraged "talking with strangers." We noticed that sometimes as many people were talking in groups in the hallways as were at the panels and discussions, and these hallway groups often included people we knew had never talked with each other before.

After a morning of information-rich and sobering panels and an afternoon of visionary brainstorming, the whole group regathered together to talk about, "What does this all mean?" and "Where do we go from here?" Amazingly, with all the heavy-duty recycling expertise in the room and despite often long-standing antagonisms, there was a perceptible feeling of "lightness" and hope. Participants enthusiastically urged continuation of this kind of discussion at many more venues around the state. Development of such plans is in process.

The following synopsis of the day's presentations and discussions offers as close an experience of "being there" as we can provide to bring others into this conversation. We think the recycling system in both the U.S. and Canada would benefit greatly from a national conversation about recycling as a whole, interactive, collaborative system.

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