Single-stream recycling

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Single-stream (also known as “fully commingled” or "single-sort") recycling refers to a system in which all paper fibers, plastics, metals, and other containers are mixed in a collection truck, instead of being sorted by the depositor into separate commodities (newspaper, paperboard, corrugated fiberboard, plastic, glass, etc.) and handled separately throughout the collection process. In single-stream, both the collection and processing systems are designed to handle this fully commingled mixture of recyclables, with materials being separated for reuse at a materials recovery facility (MRF).[1][2]

Single-stream recycling programs were first developed in several California communities in the 1990s. Subsequently, many large and small municipalities across the United States began single-stream programs. As of 2012, there are 248 MRFs operating in the U.S.[3]


Proponents of single-stream note several advantages:[4]

  • Reduced sorting effort by residents may mean more recyclables are placed at the curb and more residents may participate in recycling;[5]
  • Reduced collection costs because single-compartment trucks are cheaper to purchase and operate, collection can be automated, and collection routes can be serviced more efficiently;
  • Greater fleet flexibility, which allows single-compartment vehicles to be used to collect recycling, providing greater fleet flexibility and reducing the number of reserve vehicles needed. To avoid confusing customers, a large sign or banner is sometimes used to distinguish when a refuse truck is being used to collect recycling (instead of refuse).
  • Worker injuries may decrease because the switch to single-stream is often accompanied by a switch from bins to cart-based collection.
  • Changing to single-stream may provide an opportunity to update the collection and processing system and to add new materials to the list of recyclables accepted; and
  • More paper grades may be collected, including junk mail, telephone books and mixed residential paper.


Potential disadvantages of single-stream recycling may include:

  • Initial capital cost for:
    • New carts
    • Different collection vehicles
    • Upgrading the processing facility
  • Processing costs may increase compared to multiple stream systems
  • Possible reduced commodity prices due to contamination of paper or plastic[6]
  • Increased downcycling of paper, i.e., use of high quality fibers for low-end uses like boxboard because of presence of contaminants;
  • Possible increase in residual rates after processing (chiefly because of increased breakage of glass)[7]
  • Potential for diminished public confidence if more recyclables are destined for landfill disposal because of contamination or inability to market materials.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ City of Chicago, Illinois. Department of Streets and Sanitation. "What is Single Stream Recycling." Accessed 2013-12-09.
  2. ^ Montgomery County, Maryland. Division of Solid Waste Services, Rockville, MD (2010). "Comprehensive Solid Waste Management 10 Year Plan: 2009-2019." p. 3-40.
  3. ^ de Thomas, Dylan (2013-11-14). "Single Stream in the West." Presentation at Fall 2013 Meeting of Association of Oregon Recyclers, Portland, OR.
  4. ^ Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, Hartford, CT (2013-03-28). "The Facts About Single-Stream Recycling."
  5. ^ Diehl, Phil (2013-03-05). "Single-stream system increases recycling". San Diego Union-Tribune. San Diego, CA. 
  6. ^ "Sustainable Facilities Tool: Solid Waste System Overview". Retrieved 1 July 2014. 
  7. ^ "Single-Stream Recycling Generates Debate". Recycling Today. Richfield, OH: GIE Media, Inc. 2002-05-22. 

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