Trash Talk #3 – The Perils of Single Streaming

Everything you need to know about Single Streaming but are afraid to ask.


Single stream (also known as “fully commingled” or “single-sort”) recycling refers to a system in which all paper fibers and containers are mixed together in a collection truck, instead of being sorted into separate commodities (newspaper, cardboard, plastic, glass, etc.) by the resident and handled separately throughout the collection process. In single stream, both the collection and processing systems are designed to handle this fully commingled mixture of recyclables, with materials being separated for reuse at a materials recovery facility.

These days you may be hearing some municipalities and garbage companies wax lyrical on the wonders of single streaming.

This is what you are probably hearing:

  • It is easy and convenient (indeed it is, almost as convenient as garbage)
  • It increases ‘diversion rates’ (it does,  if you count the uptake at the curbside and don’t record or measure the 40-50% of residuals going back into the landfill because they are contaminated by the other streams)
  • How it all gets sorted when back at the plant by ‘waste professionals’ (sorted yes, but seriously downcycled and often trashed)

This is what you should know about Single Streaming and what it does to your recycling:

  • It downcycles  and downgrades the higher value of clean, high quality recycling materials for higher value recovery and recycling by creating lots of contamination when they get mixed all together
  • Recycling plants and service providers committed to waste reduction do not favour single streaming as they see that contamination creates a lot more garbage from unrecyclable residuals and significantly lowers the monetary and recovery value of the materials they sell to recycling markets
  • Municipalities argue it increases citizen participation at the curbside
  • It appears to be the easy and convenient ‘recycling solution’
  • It is almost as convenient as putting your garbage out

These are 3 very simply questions you should ask when discussing the pro’s and cons of single streaming:

  1. What percentage of the materials collected, get downgraded because they are mixed in with all the other streams and what recycling markets do they go to?
  2.  How much ‘residual’ waste or garbage from the single streamed recycling materials goes back into the landfill after collection from our blue boxes because it is contaminated and no longer fit for recovery markets?
  3. After 20 years of 3 R’s education, and a public smart enough to figure out these streams (paper, plastics, glass, metal) all come from different resources, is it wise to encourage behaviour that is counter-intuitive just because it seems to be the ‘easy option’ ?

In the waste reduction world, single streaming is a race to the bottom, a hunt for the lowest common denominator.

So next time someone tries to sweet talk you on the wonders of single streaming, hit them with these trash talk questions and see what they say.

You be the judge from there, but I’m opting for a little more rinsing and separating any day of my blue box week to ensure my recycling is not getting trashed!