America Recycles Day: A Look at Single-Stream Recycling


By Wes Muir, Director of Communications, Waste Management

Since November 15 is America Recycles Day, this is an appropriate time to take a step back and consider what we can be doing better for the planet. From a resource management perspective, the four Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle and recover – have long guided solutions for dealing with the abundance of waste produced on a daily basis.

Building on this principle, communities and neighborhoods around the U.S. have joined to support waste reduction by participating in curbside recycling programs that enable every person to have a positive impact on the environment. In turn, roughly 33 percent of paper and cardboard waste is recovered and processed in the United States, according to a 2007 report from the EPA.

You may be thinking, “Only 33 percent? Shouldn’t this rate be higher?” It should, and it can be.

A process called “single stream” simplifies the recycling process so that we can more easily and efficiently discard paper, plastic, glass and cans. Instead of separating these materials into different containers, single-stream recycling allows you to place everything into one bin. To accommodate for the extra recyclables, the bins used for single-stream recycling are larger and placed on wheels. This makes the bins easier to maneuver and reduces the number of pickups needed to deliver your items to a materials recovery facility, or MRF. The convenience of single-stream recycling greatly increases participation, resulting in the recovery of up to 30 percent more recyclable materials.

During the single-stream process, recyclable materials are separated at the MRF. Instead of sending around a separate recycling-only truck to collect your bins, everything can be collected in an ordinary trash collection truck. This lowers expenses for collection, and further streamlines the recycling process. Once materials are brought to the facility, they are then efficiently sorted and recovered using a number of new waste technologies. To see a short video from Waste Management and Discovery Channel about how this process works, click here.

Waste Management is focused on making it easier for people to recycle and is the first major solid waste company to focus on single-stream recycling. So far, the company has seen much success in communities where single-stream recycling has been implemented. Presently, Waste Management operates 32 single-stream facilities across the country, and an additional four will either begin construction or open this year.

Waste Management (WM), operates nearly 100 recycling plants in the U.S. It also processes recyclables in 109 of the 500 communities across North America that have single-stream collection.  WM’s largest single stream facility, in terms of volume, located in Elkridge, Maryland has seen at least a 35 to 40 percent increase in volume of recyclables.  And in some cases, the increase in recycling rates has been much higher.  For example, in Murphy, Texas, a small community outside of Dallas, switching to single-stream increased the recyclables collected by nearly 300 percent

Single-stream recycling saves money, time and makes it easier than ever for communities to be greener. Additionally, recycling materials such as paper, glass, and metal at these facilities helps protect valuable natural resources, save energy, promote clean air and water, and conserve landfill space. This America Recycles Day – and every day – be sure to consider the possibilities and watch for single-stream recycling to come to your community.

Wes Muir is Director of Corporate Communications for Waste Management, responsible for external communications and public affairs across North America including the development and management of strategies and programs in support of the company’s renewable energy, recycling and corporate development business groups, corporate branding/reputation and environmental sustainability initiative and media and social media.Prior to Waste Management, Wes was Director of Communications for the International Council on Mining and Metals responsible for the development and management of the global communications strategy in support of the industry’s sustainable development initiatives.Prior to this position, he was Director of Communications and Public Affairs for BHP Billiton Base Metals and its predecessor Rio Algom, an international mining company where he developed and managed the corporate communications and public affairs activities for the company’s domestic and international operations and projects.Wes has also held senior positions with public affairs and communications agencies in Canada and the United States providing communications counsel and support to a wide range of industry sectors including natural resources, environment, energy, financial, health and consumer products and services.

5 responses

  1. Hey Wes, what do you think about Lloyd Alter’s take on Recycling day? LINK HERE. Basically he’s calling out recycling as BS, and an imposition on taxpayers by unscrupulous companies (like bottled water manufacturers) who would rather we clean up after them…

    1. Hi Nick,

      I think everyone agrees that we need to reduce the amount the waste we each generate. However, I respectfully disagree with Lloyd’s point of view about recycling. We live in a consumer-driven society that makes up our significant portion of our GDP, and in turn, there remains a demand for manufactured products. The resulting waste needs to be handled, and recycling has proven advantages that benefit the entire population. The EPA explains that recycling generates positive results, including:

      – Protecting and expand U.S. manufacturing jobs;
      – Increasing U.S. competitiveness;
      – Preventing pollution caused by the manufacturing of products from virgin materials, and
      – Saving energy, among other clear environmental benefits.

      Recycling requires a collective effort; corporations and consumers alike share the responsibility of taking steps to reduce the waste they produce and use. America Recycles Day serves as a reminder to us all of the need to share this responsibility to attain these benefits.

      1. Great response, Wes. I love Lloyd because he shakes things up… I think your perspective reflects the reality of how complex things are and the time it’ll take to get us to a more sustainable point.

        Lloyd’s post did get me thinking about the idea of “design for reuse” from the beginning, which I think is especially important with complex items like computers and cars. By designing products from the begining to have second lives, or to have replaceable elements we’ll be able to manage the whole stream much more efficiently.

  2. Single-stream recycling is not a panacea and is not always less expensive. Capital costs are higher – automated trucks, carts, single-stream MRFs – and revenue from the sale of recylables is often much lower due to contamination. Paper grades in single-stream programs are usually downgraded because of contamination from plastic, glass, moisture, etc. As well, because most of the single-stream programs are automated cart-based systems, there is no simple way to tell a resident if he is putting the wrong materials in his cart. Off they go to the MRF where they are removed and disposed of, not recycled.

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