Say goodbye to those little recycle bins. No more banging around in the garage tying up cardboard or separating paper from cans and bottles. In the 21st century, all recyclables go into one big fat tub.
At least that's the way a growing number of US cities are recycling now - using one bin and a controversial system called "single stream" that boosts recycling rates and lowers costs. But critics say it also degrades some of the material being recycled.
Few communities are more environmentally conscious than Madison, Wis. Yet when the city's new single-stream recycling program launched in September, residents began recycling 8,100 tons more per week - material previously destined for the landfill. The city's recycling rate leaped 25 percent in a couple of months, pushing its landfill and collection costs down and boosting revenue from sales of reclaimed paper and metals dramatically, says George Dreckman, Madison's recycling coordinator.
"We're entering a whole new era," he says. "Enthusiasm for recycling was lagging before - we weren't 'flavor of the month' anymore. Single-stream has changed everything."
For about five years the national recycling rate has hovered around 30 percent. But as single-stream recycling becomes more popular, the rate could climb, experts say.
Since taking root in California in the late 1990s, the single-stream program has been spreading eastward to places like Denver and parts of Philadelphia. Today about 100 city and regional single-stream programs in 22 states serve 27 million residents - compared with 11 states and 16 million residents five years ago, according to Governmental Advisory Associates, a Westport, Conn., consulting firm.
"Single-stream has become very popular," says Wes Muir, a spokesman for Houston-based Waste Management Inc., which boasts 25 single-stream handling facilities. Because people tend to put more into the system with a big bin, "you increase the recycling content by about three times the amount."
Unlike today's dual-stream approach - where residents separate cans and bottles from paper - single-stream recycling puts all recyclables in the same 95-gallon bin. Proponents say the large bin and no separation make recycling simpler, faster, and cheaper, thanks to automation. Collection trucks use a mechanical arm to dump the big plastic tub into the truck, so drivers never leave their seats. At the recycling facility, sophisticated computer-controlled sifting mechanisms do the sorting. It's a dramatic change from the 1970s, when "source separating" materials by hand was common.
Not everyone is enthused about the new approach. Some say it fails to meet fundamental recycling goals: saving energy and renewing material to its "best and highest" use - bottles back into bottles, for instance.
The "jury is still out on whether single-stream is the answer," says Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Some ardent recyclers deride single-stream systems for generating too much waste - with up to a quarter of the material at some facilities ending up going to a landfill anyway. Meanwhile, a good dual-stream program may produce just 2 to 3 percent "residuals" bound for the landfill.
With single-stream "we found that you're driving around and picking up stuff and then throwing away 25 percent of it. That's not why we're recycling," says Susan Hubbard, CEO of Eureka Recycling, a Minneapolis company that conducted a study of the two systems in 2002.
Much of the problem stems from plastic and glass contamination of paper. Glass bottles are often crushed in the collection trucks or in the sorting process. Despite high demand for recycled glass, broken shards are nearly worthless. So single-stream operations sometimes use shards as landfill cover or in paving material.
That doesn't sit well with Ralph Simon, vice president of fiber supply and marketing at SP Recycling, which operates 27 recycling centers nationwide and supplies paper fiber to newsprint manufacturers.
"We've gotten confused on what the word recycling really means," he says. "You're not successful unless the consumer buys the product that's been recycled."
This is a critical issue for recycling advocates, who for years have tried to dispel a popular myth that materials just go to landfills instead of being recycled. Ironically, plastic and aluminum recycling rates have dropped though demand is high. Glass-bottle recycling rates, for instance, fell from 27 percent in 1995 to 22 percent in 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency reported.
Ms. Hubbard's solution: Go ahead and use a large tub, but simply divide it into two sections. Others suggest keeping glass out of new single-stream systems altogether - an idea rejected by the glass industry and hard-core recyclers, who say glass recycling would continue to drop.
That debate has not slowed the move to single stream. Tidewater Fibre Corp. set up the East Coast's first such recycling program in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1997. Since then, the Chesapeake, Va., company has expanded to five nearby cities, more than doubled the number of households it serves, and seen recyclable tonnage triple.
"When you give [people] a 95-gallon container, it just makes it so much easier that they go ahead and recycle," says Michael Benedetto, Tidewater's president.