We've been hearing the chants recently.. single stream, single stream, single stream. It has become the craze and it seems that nearly everyone thinks its the wave of the future (heck they have a song about it Toss It Baby). Many "environmentalists" push for the idea, they claim it'll get those people recycling that previously refused and greatly improve recycling numbers and participation. I consider myself to be environmentally conscious, so much so that I think dual stream is a better option (yeah, I know, no one cares). So okay, technology in the single stream arena has improved, separating the material has become more effective, and the residual rates have gone down (still noticeably higher then a dual stream facility). We have agreed, that with everyone pushing, single stream seems to be a necessity brought on by market demand. CRI Hamburg is in the midst of installing a single stream sorting system, as I type. We have done our research and have taken careful note of various systems that have had success and those who have not performed as well, we are ready. I have to admit, we have unanimously decided that this is the path we should take but some of us still can't help but pout a bit.. like a child that agrees to cooperate but still has some reservations about it.
Now a new chant is being whispered (thank God it's only a whisper at this point) .. dirty mrf, dirty mrf, dirty mrf. To this chant I respond "come on people how lazy can we be"? I guess before I continue on my tirade I should explain what a dirty mrf (materials recovery facility) is. A dirty mrf is a facility that accepts material that has been collected curbside that is both residual waste (garbage) and recycling (inclusive of paper, plastics, glass, metals, etc). There are reasons that we don't throw our trash around our house and we keep it separated in a bin by itself, sometimes with odor blocking bags. You can eliminate most of your "gross" trash by rinsing containers and composting although do you really think that someone who couldn't be bothered to separate their trash from this recycling would take the time to rinse it out or compost it (typically)? I think, no. Recycling in and of itself is not a clean process, you still will receive material with contamination even when it is sorted. The implications of mixing trash with recycling will take a toll on the industry in a number of ways.
1. Staff - Sorting recyclables can be a dirty job adding garbage in to the equation will only make the position less appealing. In addition, injuries will be more likely to occur since many times people throw sharp items into the trash (light bulbs, broken ceramics, broken glasses, etc). Additional automation could help with this issue but that would mean the loss of "unskilled" labor positions.
2. Residual Rates - The more you mix trash in with the recycling the more recycling will be downgraded to trash. You can attempt to sort out material that is mixed but it will never again be as clean as single or dual stream material. Glass will break and paper will get wet, this will lead to intermingled contamination and the need for out throws.
3. True Recyclability- The entire goal and focus of recycling is to create a new product from an old used up one. The more "stuff" you mix with the recyclables the dirtier they become. White paper that is mixed with dirty and semi-wet drink containers will no longer be white and will no longer be able to make a new high quality white paper. The process produces lower quality raw materials that do not have the same flexibility for reuse as it's cleaner alternative.
4. Costs- There are entirely more capital and processing costs associated with processing recyclables and garbage mixed. The material is harder on the equipment and the equipment needed is more expensive. In addition, more material is downgraded (residual) that will need to be hauled away as trash. As mentioned above the labor will typically become more difficult to keep leading to the new for higher wages or automation (which is a costly equipment expense).
I understand that everyone looks for the easiest and simplest way to get things done but this is just removing sorting on a small scale from the hands of the consumer and putting large scale sorting on the processor. I am hopeful that despite this process seeming like the easy way out that people will continue to take in account our environment and revisit what the true goals of recycling.
So now you know how I feel how about you?