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An Overview of Advantages and Disadvantages of Recycling

What is Single-Stream Recycling?

Recycling is a process that converts waste into reusable material. For example, aluminum cans will be melted and then made into new cans and paper will be mixed with water to make pulp,  which then pressed into new sheets of paper. Single-stream recycling means that a consumer can put all types of recyclable goods-like aluminum cans, glass containers, paper, and plastic- into a single recycling bin and then a company receives the mixture of recyclable items and sorts it all out in a factory setting. The reason why people recycle is because they would like to contribute less waste to landfills. Larger landfills contribute to larger greenhouse gas emissions, which is known to wreak havoc on the earth’s atmosphere and health.

How Does Residential Single-Stream Recycling Work?

A resident will either purchase or be provided with a recycling bin-American recycling bins are typically green or blue-that will be kept in or right outside their household. The resident will fill the bin with all types of recyclable items including but not limited to paper, plastic, and metal, and glass-more specifics will be discussed shortly. That bin of recyclables will be emptied into a community dumpster or will be directly placed on the curb for a recycling company to pick up. This pick up of recyclables  typically happens on a weekly or biweekly basis. The recycling company will then dump all of the recyclables into a materials recovery facility (MRF) where they are will be sorted by machines and manpower [6]. The materials that can be salvaged are then collected by type (paper with paper, glass with glass, etc.) and shipped to various companies for them to repurpose and use for their own products.

A Brief Timeline on the History of Recycling

  • 1897: New York City creates one of the first MRFs in America. [12]
  • 1965 to 1970: The Mobius Loop is introduced as the symbol for Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, by Gary Anderson. [12]
  • 1974 University City, MO becomes one of the first municipalities in the country to offer curbside recycling to its residents. [12]
  • 1988 The number of curbside recycling programs in the US increases to about 1,050. [12]
  • 1990s Communities in California were the first to use single- stream recycling in America. [11]
  • 2000 The EPA confirms a link between global warming and waste, showing that recycling and reducing our garbage decreases greenhouse gas emissions. [12]
  • 2005 About 20 percent of all U.S. communities with recycling programs use single-stream recycling. [10]
  • 2010 About 64 percent of all U.S. communities with recycling programs used single-stream recycling. [10]
  • 2011 America recycled about 87 million tons of material, more than 60 percent of Americans have access to curbside recycling. [10]
  • 2015 About 22 percent of standard American county is complying with the standards to put right things in there. [1]


  • For the Resident
    • Decrease sorting efforts:

    Single-stream recycling versus multi-stream recycling means that the efforts for sorting recyclables are reduced–all recyclables are allowed in a single recycling bin. This may make residents more likely to participate in recycling and may lead to more recyclables placed at the curb or in the community recycling dumpster/receptacle. [8]

    • Clarity of destination:

    For residents participating in curb side pick- up, the recycling trucks will come by with distinguished signs labeling their truck as a recycling truck. The emphasis on clarity of which company is picking up their recyclables, will ensure the residents that their recyclables are being sent to a MRF and not a landfill [8].

    For the Participating Communities

    • Decrease waste management costs:

    For any given city, labor costs and tipping fees for garbage management will decrease as the amount of recycling increases. This means that an average American single- stream recycling system that costs $200,000 per year should be breaking even by 2019 [4]. Recycling costs a city $39 per ton, versus

    $49 for garbage. Also, single-compartment trucks cost less to purchase and operate versus multi-compartment trucks used for multi-stream recycling systems. This will also contribute to a reduced collection cost.

    • Increase efficiency:

    Single-compartment trucks are able to use automated collection routines, which leads to collection routes being serviced more efficiently [8].

    • Safer conditions for workers:

    The workers for the recycling companies may see a decrease in the amount of work-related injuries. Recycling bins for single-stream recycling are commonly in the form of wheeled carts. Multi-stream bins were typically not wheeled which makes workers prone to injuring their backs when they pick up and carry numerous bins [8].

    For the Environment

    • Increase land fill life:

    Recycling in general will extend the life of a landfill because, with less waste in the garbage bin and more materials in the recycling bin, the landfill won’t fill

    up so quickly with waste, thus extending its life [4].

    • Recycle more materials:

    As research continues, single-stream recycling may make way for an opportunity to add new materials to the list of recyclables accepted. Also, with a single-stream sorting system, more grades of paper may be collected than ever before [8]. An increase is the amount of recycled materials will positively impact the environment.

  • Disadvantages
  • For the Participating Companies
  • Increase in taxes:
  • A resident who lives in a location that has a single-stream recycling program is most likely going topay local taxes for the program. These taxes are subject increase becuase Residents who participate in single- stream
  • For the Environment
  • Contaminated material to landfills:
  • Due to the nature of single-stream recycling, different materials will cross-contaminate other materials. A typical, new single- stream program endures contamination in about 40 percent of its loads [4]. These contaminated parts of the load will be sent to the landfill. Mixing all materials together is convenient, but leads to wet paper and bits of broken glass that can’t be sorted.
  • About a quarter of single-stream recycling goes to the dump because of contamination [6].
  • Lower quality of products:
  • Susan Collins, director of the Container Recycling Institute–a nonprofit research and advocacy group, says in terms of preserving the quality of materials so that the maximum materials collected can actually be recycled, single-stream is one of the worst options” [6]. The purpose of recycling is so that materials can be repurposed and reused. If the MRFs are supplying poor-quality raw material to companies, they are costing those companies a loss in quality of their goods as well.

What You Can and Can’t Recycle

You should only recycle paper, cardboard, commingled containers, plastic bottles, tubs, jugs, and jars. Figure 2 offers some visual aids on what typical household recyclable goods look like.

The Big DO NOTS of Single-Stream Recycling

Do not recycle any container that has previously held oil because it is very likely to contaminate other items you place in your recycling bin [3]. Do not bag any items to be recycled-they should all be loosely placed into your recycling receptacle. Bagging items are very likely to be discarded during the recycling process and send to the landfill. Do not recycle plastic bags by themselves either because they can bind up the sorting machines’ gears and cause damage. Do not recycle Styrofoam or shredded paper.

Excluding cardboard, make sure all commingled containers, bottles, jugs, and jars, are not flattened. Ball up on aluminum foil you recycle so that the sorting machines don’t mistake it as a sheet of paper. Any material that was in contact with food or other messy substances should be emptied and rinsed out thoroughly.

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