Small towns looking for ways to control solid waste costs for citizens are turning to single-stream recycling. Penny-pinched big cities are discovering that single-stream recycling can free up labor and equipment to expand other services with no budget increase. Jurisdictions with solid waste departments operating as enterprise funds are experimenting with single-stream material recovery facilities (MRFs) and may soon begin to compete with private recycling processors.

Single-stream recycling addresses a host of problems. However, manufacturers that buy commodities from single-stream recyclers often complain of unacceptably high rates of contamination. Dual-stream customers share some of the blame for contamination problems on the assumption that they sometimes get mixed up or lazy and stuff the wrong material into the wrong bin. MRFs also are sometimes guilty of poor quality sorting.

But despite reservations manufacturers may have about single-stream recycling, haulers and consumers love it. Which means that it will very likely become the rule — if it hasn't already.

Norwood, Mass., Cuts Its Budget With Single Stream

Norwood, Mass., General Manager John Carroll could see it coming. Without a change, Houston-based Waste Management would soon raise his town's residential trash collection rates. Since the town paid Waste Management from tax receipts, a rate hike would likely require a tax increase — certain to be an unpopular undertaking.

Carroll and Assistant General Manager Bernard Cooper discussed options with Waste Management. Carroll wanted to switch from dual-stream to single-stream recycling. Having seen research that showed single stream increased recycling while reducing trash, he reasoned that less trash meant lower costs.

Under Carroll's plan, Waste Management would convert its existing MRF to single stream, pick up recyclables at curbside, sort the material and sell the commodities. The revenue would cover the collection and sorting operations. The plan also called for Waste Management to supply automated side-loading trucks for recycling and trash, 96-gallon barrels for recycling and 64-gallon barrels for trash.

It worked. “We started in October of last year, and our curbside recycling doubled,” says Cooper. “Trash tonnage has fallen.”

By reducing trash tonnage, the program exceeded its goal of holding trash collection costs steady. Norwood's annual trash collection budget fell by $200,000, from $1.9 million to $1.7 billion.

Manual Trucks Don't Bar Single Stream In Baltimore

Jurisdictions that handle their own solid waste collection don't have to buy new trucks to convert to single-stream recycling. “Our trucks are traditional low packers, operated by a driver and two laborers,” says Tonya Simmons, recycling coordinator with the Bureau of Solid Waste in Baltimore City.

Conventional wisdom says that single stream requires automated trucks and carts that work with them. Operational efficiencies will eventually pay for the new equipment. But what if you can't afford new trucks or new containers?

Baltimore couldn't. But officials decided to try single stream anyway, using the city's existing fleet of manual collection trucks. The city used mailers, fairs, festivals and television campaigns to explain and promote the switch to single stream. Residents were instructed to put recyclables into any available container and to mark it as recycling.

The city also revised its collection schedule, going from two trash pickups per week plus two recycling pickups per month to one trash and one recycling pickup per week.

It worked. Recycling tonnage rose from 11,530 in 2007 to 15,057 tons in 2008. Trash tonnage fell from 201,474 tons in 2007 to 194,121 tons in 2008. And since the altered schedule eliminated two collection runs per month, the city found itself with excess labor that could be used to expand the services provided by the Department of Public works. “We assigned the extra crews to street and alley cleaning, a service we haven't been able to provide regularly,” Simmons says.