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Portage Recycling Switch Means More Recyclables, but Also More in Landfill

An Elkhart, Indiana Material Recovery Facility
Recycle Works

Starting Thursday, the City of Portage will change the way it does recycling. Instead of having two bins, one for paper and cardboard and one for plastic and glass, residents can throw them all together in one big cart. 

This is called single-stream recycling. It’s convenient for residents and has been shown to dramatically increase recycling rates. But what’s good for residents isn't always good for manufacturers.

In 2011, the City of Portage did a test run for single-stream recycling in the Woodbridge Hills neighborhood. Rod Russell is the city’s director of public services. He says the neighborhood was already full of avid recyclers. But in a period of about six months, the amount of recycling increased by more than 40 percent. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, according to the Container Recycling Institute, about 25 percent of all single-stream recycling ends up in a landfill. Why? Because the material gets contaminated all the way from the curb to the manufacturing plant.

Let’s start at the curb. Put a can of un-rinsed tomato soup into a curbside bin and you always risk the entire contents of the recycling truck getting thrown in the trash.

In single-stream that risk is even higher because everything is combined together. So that leftover soup has the chance to dribble on things like paper and cardboard.

Then the recycling is dropped into a truck and compacted together--mashing the soup into clean recycling from neighbors down the street.

It then moves on to sorting at a Material Recovery Facility or MRF. In a MRF, the machine tries to group similar things together, but Container Recycling Institute President Susan Collins says it doesn’t always work.

“Glass shards get mixed in with small pieces of paper and bottle caps and dental floss picks and chicken bones. All of those end up being roughly the same size and shape as small pieces of glass," she says.

"And so it means that at the end of the day, typically, the material from a single-stream facility, the glass will contain 40 percent contamination by weight.”

Of course, most glass bottles in Michigan never see a MRF. Thanks to the bottle deposit law, they go straight back to manufacturers. But other materials, like plastic bottles may never be made into bottles again.

“The lawyers at different beverage companies won’t allow the company to buy the material to use as recycled content in making new beverage bottles unless they are absolutely certain that it’s been kept sort of clean all the way through the process. And they don’t allow non-food bottles to be mixed in with food and beverage bottles,” Collins explains.

Collins says they might be an ingredient in carpet, teddy bear stuffing, or t-shirts - but it’s not the one for one replacement recyclers hope for.  

With all its flaws, single-stream does increase recycling rates. So how can Michigan get both more recycling and make it cleaner?

Surprisingly, Collins says the countries with the highest recycling rates also tend to have the most streams. That’s because they make it more convenient. She says European countries can have up to nine different streams, but recycling is easier than ever.

“They have so many stations that will accept the glass. It’s very very convenient. Nobody has to go more than a mile or so to get to another station to recycle glass,” she says.

Collins says if Michigan added plastic drink containers to the bottle deposit law, the state could increase its recycling rate exponentially.

The new program in Portage also stands to save the city about $440,000 a year. As for the cost savings that comes with single-stream, Collins says we could have that too.

Single-stream recycling trucks often have a mechanical arm that picks up the bins. Collins says it’s more efficient and saves companies money because workers are less likely to get hurt.

“That’s just the advantage that comes from automation and automation can be done with dual-stream recycling,” she says.

Despite these facts, the Container Recycling Institute says single-stream recycling programs are growing in the United States. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of single-stream MRFs more than doubled.

Rod Russell says he knows it’s not a perfect system, but single-stream is convenient and gets more people to recycle. He says the best the city can do is make its program as clean as possible.

“We’ve held two public meetings to educate our residents here as far as the do’s and don’ts, and are now taking it to another level in going to the public schools here to educate the children. So that they are the future and it’s important for them, but it’s real critical that we just don’t throw everything in there,” he says. 

The City of Portage will switch to single-stream recycling on Thursday. Russell says, so far, about 60 percent of Portage residents have signed up to get a single-stream recycling cart. Kalamazoo is also considering the switch to single-stream.