Top 5 Rules for Single-Stream Recycling

In nine out of ten of the largest cities in the United States, recycling has gone from a multi-stream to single-stream process. If you don't live in an area with MRFs (materials recovery facility) or you do but don't know what it is or does, it's a facility where all of the sorting is done for you. You throw your glass, plastic, and paper into one bin and you're done – the rest is taken care of for you. As of 2012, there were 248 MRFs (pronounced MURFS) in the United States. The single-stream process/MRFs are certainly convenient as they take most of the work out of household recycling. But, with that convenience, there are drawbacks—recycler confusion and contamination lead the charge—and the biggest drawback comes in the form of residuals.

Residuals are usually defined as something that could have been recycled but was thrown into the garbage or something recyclable that was actually put into a recycling bin but made it to the landfill anyway. According to the Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center, residual rates are roughly 1 percent for multi-stream systems and 2-3 percent in dual-stream systems but jump all the way up to 15-27 percent for single-stream systems. Those are not great numbers, especially since most of the United States will move to single-stream recycling over the next few years. Fortunately, a little education never hurt anyone, and there are five rules you should definitely know if you live in a city with single-stream recycling and you want to help ensure that your recyclables are really getting recycled.

1) NO plastic bags!

Plastic bags are the not-so-smooth criminal of the single-stream recycling world. They have to be pulled from the lines of other recyclables, but it’s almost impossible to catch them all, which means that they get tangled in the sorting equipment and can actually break the machines. Find a list of local stores and locations that accept clean, dry bags and take them there, but they should never go in your recycling bin. Or, better yet, don't use them at all. According to Salon, a study a few years ago "found that the inks and colorants used on some bags contain lead, a toxin. Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they've been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It's equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil." There are a lot of easy alternatives out there, and if you’re in a bind, you can always ask for paper.

2) NO recyclables INSIDE of plastic bags!

If you read the paragraph above, then this one should go without saying, but it's still the second-biggest problem that MRFs deal with. The problem, in all likelihood, comes from a good place. Perhaps people want their recyclables to be tidy or easier to handle, but it's definitely not helpful, and it certainly doesn't make anything easy to handle. All of these different types of recyclables have to be sorted eventually which means that they will have to be ripped out of those plastic bags and a whole new step is added to the recycling process. Just because you put them into the same bin doesn’t mean that they're going to end up in the same place. The only time something that was meant to be recycled ends up in the same place as a different kind of recyclable, it probably means that they're both in a landfill and no one wants that.

3) NO shredded paper!

Although we live in an era where the idea of identity theft strikes fear in the hearts of anyone with a bank account and average credit score, we need to be protecting more than just our Social Security numbers. Paper shredders have become a handy sidekick for those looking to literally dispose of their paper trail, but they are no friend to MRFs. Shredded paper is too small to sort—the pieces fall through the cracks of the sorting machines, stick to the belts, and end up all over the floor. Also, the more shredded the paper is, the smaller the recyclable fibers are, and the less likely it is that your private documents will go anywhere but a landfill. Great alternatives are switching to a highly secure email version of your paper bills and documents or taking the paper versions to a community center that will deal with them safely and properly. Go to the shredded paper section of and enter your zip code to find a plethora of places near you where you can take your documents or shredded paper for thorough disposal and recycling.

4) NO scrap metal!

Scrap metal items of any size should not go in your recycling bin. These items cause an awful amount of damage to recycling equipment in MRFs. From aluminum cans to wire hangers, most metal can be recycled, but scrap metal (like pipes, mechanical parts and so on) should be taken to a scrapyard, and you might even make a few dollars along the way. Most curbside collections accept aluminum cans and many laundromats will accept your reusable wire hangers, but other metals must be taken to a scrapyard or drop-off center that can properly recycle or dispose of them. If you're not sure what type of metal you're dealing with, can once again steer you in the right direction, helping you to, first, decipher what you kind of metal you have and, secondly, find a nearby drop-off location that will dispose of or recycle it responsibly.

5) NO hazardous or biohazardous waste!

Hazardous waste such as paint, automotive fluids, car batteries, and pesticides, along with biohazardous waste such as syringes, needles, diapers, and other sanitary products are not recyclable. And they put all of the hard-working people (as well as the other recyclables) at the MRFs in danger of contamination. If you're not sure what counts as hazardous household waste, the EPA is happy to tell you all about it and give you some green alternatives to a few of those toxic chemicals you may be buying and using in your home. Likewise, if you're not sure what counts as biohazardous or medical waste, can give you some answers and help you find out how to dispose of these items. Many communities have established hazardous waste collection days when hazardous products are collected from homes and taken to an approved facility for disposal. This can vary from city to city and state to state, so if you still have questions, click here, and type in what you want to recycle along with your zip code. It's that easy, and you can rest easy knowing that your recyclables are really getting recycled.

Posted by Julia Troute on Jul 31, 2015