Does It Actually Make Sense to Combine Different Types of Recyclables in One Bin?

Darby Hoover, NRDC’s waste expert, says this “single stream” type of recycling is mostly about customer convenience, but the costs may outweigh the benefits.

Credit: Alexander Spacher

Q: The no-sorting kind of recycling most places use is convenient for consumers, but it seems to me it reduces the value of the resource and possibly diminishes the profitability for recycling companies. What is your view, and what do you see as the future of recycling? And will we be able to recycle polystyrene at some point?

―Wally Elton

A: Recycling confuses even the best of environmentalists—and for good reason. There are those little questions that often come up as you sort your scraps at home. (Should you throw the bottle top in the bin with the bottle? Are pizza boxes recyclable or not?) Then there are the bigger ones—who sorts through all our commingled plastics and metals anyway? It gets pretty complicated, pretty quickly. So bear with us while we try to break it all down.

The biggest thing to understand about our recycling system is that it is typically financed at the municipal level and therefore varies widely from place to place. There are some trends, however. For example, many cities are now using “single stream” recycling, where all the recyclable materials are placed in the same bin. Before single-streaming caught on, recyclable materials were separated by consumers into different bins. Eventually some localities decided to make recycling less complicated for their residents by switching to a single-stream system. Indeed, household participation in recycling increased, and fewer trucks were needed to collect the recyclables, which saved these cities some money.

Still, you’re correct! This convenience comes with a price. The sorting process becomes more complicated (and more costly) on the back end, and the quality of certain recyclables is diminished when the materials are all mixed together, which lowers their market value. For example, paper can lose value when it is contaminated by food, moisture, or broken glass. (In fact, China’s recent decision to no longer accept our recycling is due to how dirty our recyclables are from our single-stream system.)

As for your question about polystyrene, while rigid polystyrene is recycled in many communities, polystyrene foam (sometimes referred to as Styrofoam) typically isn’t. Polystyrene foam is technically recyclable, but the reason we don’t recover it has to do with the fact that it is mostly made of air and takes up a lot of room to collect while ultimately providing very little recyclable (and hence sellable) material. It’s also a logistical nightmare to collect, what with it flying around everywhere.

These logistics all speak largely to why the materials you can recycle differ depending on where you live—and why the list may change from one year to the next. Cities decide what they will recycle based on what they can afford to collect, sort, and then find a market for. It’s not usually a parameter of what materials can physically be recycled but whether the returns make it worthwhile.

Darby Hoover, NRDC senior resource specialist, food waste initiatives
Credit: Rebecca Greenfield

Phew—still with us? This brings us to your bigger question, tucked in the middle: What is an ideal recycling system, and what do we at NRDC advocate for? NRDC’s Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist on all things waste, says room for improvement lies primarily upstream, before consumers even get to the point of figuring out which bin something goes into. “We need to reduce the volume we recycle by removing a considerable percentage of single-use items from our consumer stream altogether,” she says. “It makes no sense to take nonrenewable fossil fuels out of the ground to make containers we use once and then toss.”

Hoover also points to the importance of encouraging companies to phase out or provide pathways to recycle single-use and other commonly discarded items. “Policies can help promote this ‘producer responsibility,’ where companies take on some of the financial or logistical burden of recycling their products,” she says. “These types of laws already exist in other countries, and we can work to adopt more of these strategies here in the United States.”

While companies and governments have a critical role to play, consumer action is also key. It’s our job to reach out to companies and express our concerns when we can’t reuse or recycle their products and packages. Citizens should push for legislative solutions like the recent bans on plastic bags or plastic straws. And each of us can shop more thoughtfully, with an eye toward reducing the amount of packaging waste we create in the first place.

The short answer, Wally, is that there is no short answer, and no easy solution, to our country’s recycling problem. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a role in its future and a responsibility to pave the way for the cleaner communities we all deserve.

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