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A common reaction to concerns about single stream recycling is, "It's a done deal! Get over it!" But is it a GOOD deal? And is it always done well? We need to talk about this more, not squelch discussion.

Conservatree has been interviewing single stream participants in all parts of the recycling cycle for the past three years to find out the range of views about it. We have also been gathering suggestions for resolving problems that many in the manufacturing industries report encountering with single stream materials.

We've found there are so many variations on what people identify as "single stream" that there's no single assessment that can cover them all. Some programs are quite good, some are very bad.

The good news is that we can learn from both and make improvements that work better for everyone. It's only by identifying and resolving the problems that single stream can truly fulfill the potential many want for it.

California recyclers and manufacturers who operate in California or use materials from the state's recycling programs gathered in Sacramento on May 23, 2005 for a provocative and extremely informative California Statewide Roundtable on Single Stream: Closing the Loop, Taking A Whole Systems Approach. See our "walk-through" report on this meeting for a wealth of detail on the benefits and challenges of single stream recycling programs and read our Resource Recycling Article about it.

Read our 2003 initial report, Single Stream: An Investigation Into the Interaction Between Single Stream Recycling Collection Systems and Recycled Paper Manufacturing.

Read Conservatree's August 2004 National Recycling Coalition Congress Speech.

We're working on a Single Stream Best Practices Manual, scheduled to be completed by spring 2006. Some of the discussion papers and questions used as background for conference calls to discuss single stream program aspects are available now.

Single stream recycling collection programs are becoming very popular in many parts of the U.S. In the past, most community recycling collection programs featured source separation - meaning that residents did some of the sorting of materials before delivering them in bins for curbside pick-up.

Now, however, many programs are converting to systems that allow residents to put all recyclables, no matter what material, into one pick-up container. Almost always, the new container is a wheeled cart much larger than the previous recycling bins and appropriate for automated curbside pick-up.

What's driving this trend? Many factors, we learned in Conservatree's 2003 study, including greater tonnage collected for recycling, higher landfill diversion percentages, cost savings through automation, improved worker safety, and more.

But there are downsides that raise concerns as well. Most paper manufacturers say that the quality of the fiber materials they're getting from single stream systems is problematic, requiring landfilling of tons of plastic, glass, and aluminum cans from each mill every day.

The increases in recycled postconsumer content and environmental papers envisioned in the Common Vision promoted by more than 100 environmental groups worldwide will need the kinds of increases in collected fiber that single stream promises. At the same time, fiber has to be cost-effectively sorted into the appropriate types for different kinds of mills (depending on the products they make) and it has to be clean enough that contaminants in the bales, such as glass and polystyrene, do not degrade the manufacturing technology nor the ultimate products.

Ideally, the benefits of single stream collection can be brought together with the requirements of the manufacturers to produce greater quantities of high quality recycled products. But it appears that adjustments and more detailed planning are needed to ensure that outcome.

The recycling cycle is a continuing and interdependent system: collection and processing, manufacturing, use of recycled content products, then return to collection. It has been troubling to us to find that many people within each recycling sector seem to be losing sight of the fact that they are in a system with each other, that each of them impacts the others, and that the success of each is dependent on the success of the others.

The upside, though, is that the controversies arising around single stream collection give us all the opportunity - and necessity - for revisiting our concepts and commitment to the purpose, function and process of recycling. In particular, we find it essential to look at this issue from the perspective of the optimal functioning of the whole recycling system, rather than only separate parts of it. We also believe it is necessary to focus the recycling system on what's needed to make high quality recycled products that people will trust and embrace; loss of that focus undermines both collection and manufacturing.

Single stream is not the only issue that is changing the future for recycling. In California, especially, much of the fiber is being shipped overseas, especially to China, which has a phenomenally rapid paper mill construction program in progress.

Both these significant shifts raise questions about how well the U.S. and Canadian recycling system will be able to meet current and future North American needs for environmentally sustainable paper production. We believe this needs more in-depth consideration, and contribute our work as part of the discussion.

Please let us know what you think!




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