The case against single-stream recycling

Regina Fink

Provost Dukes Love’s Oct. 18 email about “Williams’ work for sustainability” lists the switch to single-stream recycling as a step towards the College’s “zero-waste goal.” This switch is part of a countrywide trend in which 80 percent of municipalities have made the transition to single-stream recycling due to its perceived convenience. Yet the perceived convenience and therefore popularity of single-stream, or zero-sort recycling in which consumers place all materials into one bin, comes with large costs that outweigh its benefits, including increased contamination, disruption of sorting machinery, and wasted taxpayer dollars.

The increased consumer participation in single-stream recycling is eclipsed by the higher rate of materials contaminated with food or non-recyclables that consumers throw into the bin. The convenience of this practice is thought to encourage a consumer who would not necessarily take the time to sort their recyclable materials to recycle. This is true to the extent that studies show that single-stream recycling’s increase in popularity has paralleled the growth of the recycling industry as a whole. Nevertheless, its growth has been coupled with soaring contamination rates, whether with trash or materials that can be recycled only in specialty drop-off programs.

This contamination has significant impacts on the marketability of recycled goods. A 2002 study compared five different methods of recycling collection in St. Paul, Minn. It showed that despite increasing residents’ participation in recycling, single-stream recycling produced the highest rate of loss at the processing stage. Gross tons of recycling collected at the curb increased by 20 percent, but because of contamination, there was a net decrease of 12 percent in tons of material that were actually recyclable.

This is because existing facilities are unable to sort much of this commingled material. Trucks compact what they pick up, breaking glass into shards that find their way into plastic and paper. Moreover, sorting machines have trouble telling the difference between a flattened water bottle or tin can and a piece of paper. This means that over 15 percent of bottles and 30 percent of cans end up shipped out to incorrect facilities, now unmarketable. Fossil fuels are then used to transport these un-usable products across the ocean to be stored indefinitely in developing nations.

Contamination is not just a problem for machines; it also creates serious dangers for workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, recycling work is one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Batteries can cause acid burns, broken glass can cut hands, and plastic bags jam machinery, requiring workers to reach into dangerous machinery to unjam them by hand.

Furthermore, this trouble sorting, combined with the increased contamination, means that single-stream recycling costs more to operate than multi-stream recycling. The increased cost of sorting and lowered value of contaminated recyclables means that taxpayers or consumers are paying for a more expensive and less efficient system. This cost was driven higher in 2018, when China stopped importing developed nations’ contaminated recycling. Since China is no longer willing to deal with the environmental and social repercussions of sorting and storing Europe and America’s waste, much of the recycling we sort now ends up in landfills.

We are faced with an unprecedented amount of non-recyclable waste that has little use, if any. Single-stream recycling is contributing to this problem by increasing contamination and the amount of unrecyclable plastics, and making working conditions more dangerous. Several communities are shifting back to dual- or multi-stream systems after the changes in Chinese regulations on recycling imports.

This reversal demonstrates that, despite the added logistics, multi-stream recycling is a more viable method of waste disposal. In addition, multi-stream recycling can be an important stepping stone for consumers toward understanding that American waste should be America’s problem to solve. Instead of placing the burden on developing nations, consumers, armed with more knowledge about the difficulty and dangers of the recycling process, can begin to think more about and develop agency over their own waste.

In the era of climate change, convenience should not be the priority when choosing methods of waste removal. The College must move away from tactics of abstraction that have allowed us to become passive toward our waste, and toward sorting methods that require us to think critically about how much we waste and where it will go. One method is to pressure Casella, Williams’ recycling management partner, to switch back to single-stream recycling. Understanding the labor and dangers of sorting waste will force consumers to consider the vital next step of decreasing their waste, rather than merely sorting it correctly. Only after internalizing the difficulties and dangers of sorting our waste can we begin to form mentalities that will lead us to also hold corporations and the government accountable for our own nation’s waste, rather than allowing us to dump on developing nations.

Regina Fink ’22.5 is an Environmental Studies major from Cresskill, N.J.