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 many recyclers are uninformed about 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
- 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
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. We hope that others beyond California will take up
these discussions, as well.
The fact that the Roundtable focused on single stream does not
imply advocacy for or against it. In fact, quite a few participants
argued for dual- or multi-stream systems of different types or were
in the process of deciding whether single stream would be a good
choice for their community, while others strongly favored single
But, since single stream has become such a dominant recycling choice
in California as well as, increasingly, in other parts of the U.S.
and Canada, we believe it is important to encourage an open discussion
of its effects on the recycling system and, when those effects are
negative, to search for solutions. Discouraging discussion and concerns
does not, we believe, serve either recycling or the potential that
many hold for single stream.
Ultimately, we believe that the focus needs to be not on a particular
process, but on optimizing the entire, multi-sector, collaborative
system that is recycling.
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
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