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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).
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.
Proponents of single stream note several advantages:
- Reduced sorting effort by residents may mean more recyclables are placed at the curb and more residents may participate in recycling;
- 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
- 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)
- Potential for diminished public confidence if more recyclables are destined for landfill disposal because of contamination or inability to market materials.
- City of Chicago, Illinois. Department of Streets and Sanitation. "What is Single Stream Recycling." Accessed 2013-12-09.
- Montgomery County, Maryland. Division of Solid Waste Services, Rockville, MD (2010). "Comprehensive Solid Waste Management 10 Year Plan: 2009-2019." p. 3-40.
- de Thomas, Dylan (2013-11-14). "Single Stream in the West." Presentation at Fall 2013 Meeting of Association of Oregon Recyclers, Portland, OR.
- Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, Hartford, CT (2013-03-28). "The Facts About Single-Stream Recycling."
- Diehl, Phil (2013-03-05). "Single-stream system increases recycling". San Diego Union-Tribune (San Diego, CA).
- "Sustainable Facilities Tool: Solid Waste System Overview". sftool.gov. Retrieved 1 July 2014.
- "Single-Stream Recycling Generates Debate". Recycling Today. Richfield, OH: GIE Media, Inc. 2002-05-22.
- How It Works: Inside The Machine That Separates Your Recyclables—Popular Science (August 28, 2013)
- Single-Stream Recycling Is Easier for Consumers, but Is It Better?—The Atlantic (September 19, 2014)