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What Single Stream Recycling Means For Remanufacturing

“There would be no doubt it would be more economic if you separated. The problem is then the participation rates come down,” -David Steiner

NYC Major Bill de Blasio announced that by the year 2020, New York City, one of the largest producers of recyclable and landfill materials will join the trend of adopting a single-stream method of collection. In our last article, we covered the detrimental impacts single stream recycling can have on the planet at large. However, what does a single stream system mean for remanufacturers such as yourself? As you would have guessed it’s not great. 

single stream recycling

(Image courtesy of NPR)

Impact On National Businesses

Single stream recycling is not a new system. In fact, since its onset, remanufacturers and waste management companies have had to bear the brunt of single stream’s unfortunate impact. Five years ago, previous Waste Management CEO, David Steiner, spoke of the real economic impact single stream recycling had on the massive recycler. “We lost about 103 million dollars last year and it will be about 110 million dollars this year and the primary cause is that it’s one of those unintended consequences.” Steiner explained how mixing recyclables together causes contamination and ultimately sends more unnecessary items to landfills. “There would be no doubt it would be more economic if you separated. The problem is then the participation rates come down,” he stated. The problem was occurring with such magnitude that Steiner stated the company would begin to charge for recycling glass. After rolling out their single stream program Waste Management drastically cut investments into future recycling assets in order to “get a business model that is sustainable over the long-term” This means getting cleaner materials.

Impact on Local Businesses

The problem with a single stream system is that it impacts businesses of all sizes across multiple industries including waste management and especially, recyclers and remanufacturers. Chris Hoch, owner of a local paper recycler and remanufacture in Massachusetts took a direct hit because of single stream. Before his collection area switched to single stream recycling, his company, National Fiber, had designated drop off points where locals would bring their paper products to be recycled. Every Monday the company would weigh the products and pay the town for the amount of paper received. Hoch, curious to what would happen to the paper products after single stream took effect, visited an actual single stream recycling facility. “I was horrified,” he says. In single stream recycling paper products are the last to be sorted. This means that the paper is mixed with other recyclables that are often dirty such as bottles still filled with liquid and food cans that have not been properly rinsed. Hoch recalls, “I said, ‘that’s not paper. It’s mostly metal…tin can lids. It’s plastic tops; it’s crap that in no way I can use.” Hoch still remained hopeful, and even tried partnering with recyclers by purchasing paper products. However, what he received was shocking. Mixed in with his shipment were crushed tuna cans, wire coat hangers, and a pile that resembled landfill trash as opposed to clean, recyclable materials.

 single stream recycling


the problem with single stream recycling

(images courtesy of Northhampton Community Television)

Hoch explained that he wasn’t the only recycler facing this problem. “I understand that even for some of the people that are looking for number 4 plastic recycled, while they were successful in getting a large amount of it there, there’s a lot of other stuff in that number four plastic that they’re not able to use. If they receive 20 tons of number 4 plastic, they can only use 15 tons, and are forced to bring the other 5 tons to the landfill.”

In addition to the contamination that occurs in the actual single stream facilities, consumers are largely contributing to the filth. Recyclers have collected items ranging from used diapers to even a hand grenade. There exists a lack of education in the average household on what to recycle and how to do so. However, Hoch emphasizes that once people are used to sorting their recyclables it becomes second nature. He noted that even after the introduction of single stream recycling people would still separate their paper products. “It’s the recycling system that’s the problem, not the consumers. The problem is when there is collection [paper products] just get thrown in with everything.” Paper is a major cash cow for recyclers. “Economics is about who gets the paper waste which is an enormous flow out of American homes and offices,” states Hoch. Paper is so vital that without a steady flow of paper recyclables recycling itself would not be economically viable.

What Can Remanufactures Do?

As remanufactures it is vital that we advocate for the separation of recyclables as much as possible. Single stream recycling at first seems the most efficient, since it increases the volume of recyclables. However, it doesn’t take into account the amount of materials that are lost from recycling bin to landfill. Both the economic and environmental impacts of single stream are devastating. This means remanufactures and recyclers need to be attune to any proposed changes in collection and advocate against them. This can be partnering with activist groups, called local representatives, and being involved in the communities they are located in. Another key component is educating the public. If people are already aware of how to separate their recyclables and how damaging single stream recycling is, then they won’t see validity in changing a system that already works best. If you need education materials for your nonprofit, school or business, feel free to email info@cartridge-evolution.com


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