If you look at the waste bins populating the curbs of Ann Arbor streets, you won’t notice many differences between the garbage and the recycling containers. The recycling bins, of course, say “recycling” on them, and are a slightly lighter shade of blue. But otherwise, the bins are identical. This resemblance is more than just superficial: In Ann Arbor, as in many places in the United States, not everything we believe we are recycling manages to avoid the landfill.

The current recycling program employed by the city of Ann Arbor (maintained through the independent contractor Recycle Ann Arbor ) employs single-stream recycling, so-called because it involves placing all recyclables into a single container. This single “stream” of recyclables is collected by trucks, to be separated by material at a material recovery facility, or MRF.

The alternative to this method of recycling, typically known as dual or multi-stream recycling (or “Mülltrennung” in Germany, where this kind of recycling is a cultural fixture), involves residents separating different recyclable materials (paper, glass, plastic, metal, etc.) into separate containers before they are collected. The difference between single and multi-stream recycling might only sound like a question of when the materials are separated, but in reality, multi-stream recycling avoids many of the drawbacks that the single-stream method encounters farther along in the recycling process. A transition to multi-stream recycling would save the city of Ann Arbor and its residents money and substantially reduce the amount of waste deposited in landfills.

On Recycle Ann Arbor’s webpage, the benefits of single-stream recycling are described in terms of convenience to residents. Not having to separate materials into various containers, the argument goes, “encourages residents to recycle the most materials possible.” Single-stream recycling is also cheaper to collect because curbside collection services have fewer containers to empty, and the vehicles used for collection do not need to have separate compartments for the various materials being collected.

Like most conveniences, the simplicity of single-stream recycling comes at a price. According to a study by the Container Recycling Institute, while the collection expenses of single-stream are lower than those of multi-stream, the cost of processing the collected materials (i.e. actually doing the recycling) tends to be much higher: $0-$3 more, to be exact. Considering that Ann Arbor recycled 13,878 tons in 2019, using single-stream recycling cost the city around $41,634 last year. This additional cost is due in large part to a term more frequently associated with ten-dollar lunch buffets than with recycling: cross-contamination.

Single-stream recycling must be separated eventually, but during their time in collection bins and trucks, different materials can get mixed to the extent that they cannot be sufficiently separated at an MRF. An oily pizza box, for example, while never fit to be recycled on its own, can even contaminate other items with food residue, resulting in an entire batch of recycling ending up in a landfill. Glass can be particularly problematic within the single-stream system, as the way in which single-stream recycling is processed tends to result in the shattering of glass containers: According to the previously-mentioned study, 60% of glass containers are broken during single-stream recycling. Not only does the shattered glass lose its ability to be efficiently recycled, the tiny shards can also prevent other materials, like paper, from being recycled.

The result of contamination is that a significant portion of materials residents put in their recycling bins are never recycled at all, or else can only be made into lower-quality recycled products. And despite single-stream’s lower collection costs, according to the CRI study, the contamination inherent in the single-stream system negatively impacts “the cost to the processor, the cost to the manufacturer and ultimately the cost to the consumer.”

All it would take to save this cost, and the environmental cost of viable recyclables being thrown away, is for residents to go to the minute trouble of putting their bottles and boxes in different bins, something I’m sure many Ann Arbor residents would be willing to do for the sake of improving sustainability in our community.

Of course, for that to happen, the city of Ann Arbor and Recycle Ann Arbor would have to convert the current recycling program to multi-stream. Considering that Ann Arbor has a history of leading the way in recycling initiatives (the city’s curbside recycling program, introduced in 1977, was the first such program in Michigan), the city should see this step as an opportunity to continue that legacy. It may not seem like an exciting or radical measure in the fight to protect the planet, but implementing a multi-stream recycling program will reduce both the financial and the ecological costs of the waste our community generates, and is a necessary step towards establishing a waste-free society.

Until then, Recycling Ann Arbor has a comprehensive guide on how to make sure that as many of your recyclables as possible stay out of the landfill.

Evan Dempsey can be reached at evangd@umich.edu.

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