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Single-Stream: Boost or bust?

Single-stream recycling collection is being employed more and more often in curbside recycling programs across the country.  Single-stream allows for all recyclables to be placed in one container,  eliminating the need for residents to sort and separate materials.  This added convenience has been repeatedly observed to increase residential recycling rates.  Haulers also experience a benefit in the form of decreased collection costs.  But is single-stream good or bad for the future of recycling in the U.S.?


Single-stream increases recycling rates.  A 2004 study performed by Jaakko Poyry Consulting on behalf of the American Forest and Paper Association (which opposes single-stream), estimated that single-stream collection results in 1 to 3 percent higher recovery rates versus dual or multiple stream collection techniques. 

Single-stream increases household participation.  Houston, Texas, claims that participation increased by 30,000 households after implementing a single-stream pilot in 2009. 

Single-stream decreases collection costs.  The Jaakko Poyry study determined that hauler costs are decreased by $10 to $20 per ton due to the ability to employ automated tipping mechanisms and trucks without separate collection compartments. 


Single-stream collection results in contaminated material streams (which is why the AFPA opposes the method).  In the United States, recycled materials are a commodity, and as such are subject to the constraints of the free market.  A low-quality material stream may be unusable or may require extra preparation.  Processors may not be willing to accept materials that could garner them lower or no revenue.

Single-stream increases sorting costs on the processor’s end.  While recyclables may not need to be sorted at the curb, they still must be separated in order to be processed into new materials.

Startup costs for municipalities looking to convert existing programs to single-stream may be high if there is a need for new collection vehicles and new curbside carts. 

Boost or bust?

For processors, single-stream poses some distinct disadvantages.  Nevertheless, efficiencies gained during the collection process should net most municipalities a benefit.  A 2006 study found that single-stream recycling combined with automated collection vehicles in Madison, Wisconsin resulted in a decrease in collection costs of $25 per household annually, even after accounting for the investment in new equipment.  Furthermore, Madison residents seem to appreciate the program’s benefits, exhibiting a willingness-to-pay of $3 per household per month in a municipality where participation is already mandatory.  As long as the municipality has access to processors and markets that will accept the combined materials, single-stream collection is a win-win situation for both residents and haulers, particularly when combined with automated collection.  In terms of increasing recycling rates and decreasing the amount of waste going to the landfill, single-stream is definitely a boost.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 14, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Of the panoply of wseibte I’ve pored over this has the most veracity.

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