There seems to be two types of recycling processes in Summit County: single stream and source-separated. What are the differences between these processes and is one better than the other?
— Jim, Summit Cove
Recycling is certainly beneficial to the environment and our community. The two biggest gains from recycling are resources saved and increased landfill space. (We don’t want to build landfills in our favorite hiking spots.) A good portion of the single-stream recycling that is collected in Summit County ends up at the “Altogether Recycling” facility at Alpine Waste and Recycling in Denver.
Recently, I visited Alpine’s website to see statistics on resources saved from 2012 recycling. It was impressive! So pat yourself on the back, Summit County, for contributing to efforts that saved nearly 150,000 cubic yards of landfill space; 19.1 million gallons of oil; 175.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity; 702,602 trees; and 280.3 million gallons of water.
Let’s dive into the pros and cons of single-stream recycling. Also known as comingled or unsorted recycling, single stream is what most Americans have come to love with curbside pickup. In fact, nearly 70 percent of all collection programs across the nation now participate in single stream. Customers simply throw everything into one bin. Because of this convenience, single stream fosters a better participation rate and, ultimately, a higher diversion rate.
In addition, the types of commodities accepted in single stream have expanded considerably, such as Nos. 1-7 plastics (including containers and tubs), large rigid plastics like buckets and toys, and aseptic packaging (soy milk and orange juice cartons). Now you can start to see the appeal of single stream — it’s easy and you can recycle more.
With every “too good to be true” scenario there are usually some setbacks. With single stream, since so many commodities are accepted in the program, the recycling containers start looking more like garbage cans. The mentality of “I’ll just put it in the recycling bin and let them decide if they want to recycle it or not” has contributed to major contamination issues. In the end, the more contamination you have, the greater the potential for less net material recovered and recycled.
Single-stream operators have also discovered the downside to glass in this collection process. Imagine a bin filled with every commodity from cardboard and paper to glass and mixed metals. After the bin is transported from your house to the MRF (materials recycling facility) to be bailed and shipped to various manufacturers, glass bottles have broken into tiny shards.
Glass pieces can damage paper products once they’re wedged into the fiber. Some say that single-stream glass leads to the “downcycling” of paper. Not to mention that glass shards muck up the machines at the MRF, leading to tremendous problems with operation and increased costs. In response, many communities are starting to transition to dual collection systems in which glass and other commodities are collected separately or customers are asked to leave out glass altogether.
Let’s take a look at the other end of the spectrum — source-separated recycling. Source-separated is the collection process seen at the recycling drop-off centers in Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon and Summit Cove. Facility users are asked to separate their commodities, recycling them into the appropriate bins such as mixed paper, mixed metal, colored or clear glass, No. 1 plastic bottles, No. 2 plastic bottles and cardboard/paperboard. This process requires users to collect their recyclables in numerous bins at home or sort on site. It can be a problem for those in a hurry or with little space. Recyclers are asked to follow strict guidelines to keep each commodity as clean as possible.
You may be asking yourself if single stream is available in our community, why are we still sorting at the drop-off centers? Well, for all of the single-stream issues mentioned above! Our drop-off program produces extremely clean recycling bales (usually less than 5 percent contamination). The Summit County MRF is able to contract with local markets to retain a higher profit (sorted bales bring in more money), which ultimately feeds back into the local recycling program. Take glass, for example; in the single-stream scenario, it’s a big pain. With source-separated, glass is a true “bottle-to-bottle” story that defines the ultimate recycling benefit — saving resources! Our glass is hauled to Coors in Golden, where it is made directly into a new bottle. Similar scenarios exist for most of our commodities.
In the long run, we want you to recycle. Both processes have benefits and drawbacks for the customer, the hauler and the manufacturer. You might even use a hybrid of both practices. Regardless, the most important thing is to think about the resources you save the next time you recycle! For more info about recycling, please visit www.highcountryconservation.org.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.