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Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Recycling or Contamination Crisis? an article series

Over the past year numerous mainstream media articles presented a national recycling crisis. In John Tierney's October 2015 New York Times article The Reign of Recycling, Waste Management (WM) CEO David Steiner is quoted, "If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront."

Ei Chair Scott Seydel in front of a
MRF single-stream recycling delivery
Yet the crisis seems to revolve around WM's profitability within single-stream recycling systems. According to the September 2015 Fortune article The American recycling business is a mess: Can Big Waste fix it?, single-stream recycling is a sorting method WM pioneered in 2001. Under WM and other large waste hauler influence, single-stream recycling evolved into the only available option for curbside and corporate recycling programs in many municipalities.

In single-stream recycling, common recyclable materials - fiber (cardboard, paper), plastics, metals and glass - are placed in a single bin for later sorting at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Once sorted by type, material is baled for sale within the commodity market. Beginning around 2009 the big waste haulers started switching over to single-stream recycling as their offered service.

Unfortunately, contamination was rampant in single-stream recycling systems from its introduction. Contamination generally falls into three categories: 1> non-recyclable items 2> food & melted ice and 3> glass. 

In the beginning, many of the non-recyclable items in single-stream collection were due to lack of clear signage and consumer confusion. For example, bin signage may read "Plastics," rather than the specific accepted plastics. Thus, consumers include ALL plastics - lawn chairs, hoses etc. - in the single-stream bin.

Food waste on recyclable foodservice packaging is contamination. In addition to rendering the packaging unfit for recycling, the food waste may contaminate nearby material. Water (melted ice from fountain soft drinks and other beverages) causes paper to stick to plastics; the paper and plastic are impractical to separate in MRF sorting systems. Therefore, the plastic, along with the paper stuck to it, are deposited in the landfill-destined trash pile.

MRF separated glass - filled with
plastic & paper contamination
Most single-stream recycling is collected in packer trucks where the material is crushed for transportation. When crushed, glass breaks into small shards that contaminate the paper, plastics and metals in the load. Additionally, glass (essentially sand) causes significant wear and tear on hauling trucks and MRF sorting equipment.

In December 2009 the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) issued the comprehensive Understanding economic and environmental impacts of single-stream collection systems white paper. Within the paper, research findings forewarned of single-stream perils: single-stream recycling increases diversion from landfill rates yet decreases recycling rates due to contamination.

The U.S. EPA Sustainable Materials Management Web Academy presented the webinar, Single-Stream Recycling: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, in July 2011. Within the webinar, the presenters address the effectiveness of a system designed for ease of collection. The ZWA Blog article, Single-Stream Recycling: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, gives a synopsis of the informative webinar.

If contamination was rampant since launching, how did the waste haulers make the necessary profits to drive single-stream recycling to the predominant, often only, recycling option available for communities and corporations at-large?

2015 McCormick Place recycling bin
w/ clear signage, next to waste bin.
The answer is within commodity market pricing. As the recycling commodity markets regained strength from the 2008 pricing plummets, MRFs made profits even with significant contamination. Markets for contaminated material remained reasonably stable with China purchasing the strong majority of the "dirty material."

Large waste haulers often invested in their own MRFs to complement landfill investments. Thus, the hauler collected tipping fees from landfill-bound, contaminated MRF material.

A robust commodity market through mid-2014 masked the contamination flaws within single-stream recycling systems.

Beginning in mid-2014, recycling commodity market pricing started a downward spiral. At the same time China cut U.S. purchases significantly and demanded cleaner material. Contaminated material prices severely declined and in some instances the market disintegrated. Suddenly, contaminated material was perceived as an expensive program cost versus a system by-product. 

For larger generators, on-site source separation is best materials management practices and improves the bottom line. As noted in the ZWA Blog article, Zero waste moves from "best" to standard operating practices, the Piazza Produce source-separated material recycling program generated $288,000 of cost-savings in 2015; the program continued to improve the bottom line during soft recycling markets.

Separated material at the
S-SMRT Pilot
As a raw material in manufacturing operations, clean recyclable material retains value. When there are strong local markets, larger generators often circumvent the commodities market and sell directly to the manufacturer. The Elemental Impact (Ei) Source-Separated Materials Recycling Template (S-SRT) is grounded in clean material source-separation and direct, local sales to manufacturers. Committed to integrity, the S-SRT tagline is Contamination is a Mistake!

Thus, the recycling crisis touted by David Steiner in mainstream media is a contamination crisis.

As the first in a series, this article's purpose is to establish the contamination crisis scenario. Following articles will address available solutions to overhaul corporate recycling programs, whether at an individual location or for the municipality, into systems that make good business, community and environmental sense.

In general, the articles will address corporate recycling with little to no focus on curbside recycling. Intended topics include:
  • Waste Prevention - working with the supply chain on transport packaging to eliminate trash packaging; ensuring no waste is created when products are sold to customers.
  • WE Consciousness | Culture - ensuring organization employees work in unison toward common goals within a supportive corporate culture; includes working in partnership with the supply chain and customers.
    clear communication at
    an employee bulletin board
  • Hauler | Generator Responsibility - taking responsibility for contamination within a recycling stream; using WE Consciousness, the hauler & customer work together to craft recycling programs that generate clean streams; culture plays a critical role.
  • Clear Communication - educating employers and guests on proper placement for material and trash; includes clear, effective signage & best bin practices.
  • Local Infrastructure - working with grass roots recycling companies on flexible programs unique to the local end markets; may attract new manufacturers to the local market if a significant volume of their raw material is generated within the community.
With a positive flavor, the articles will focus on success stories and how to engineer profitable recycling systems.

It is time for the corporate community to exercise their power of consumer demand when it comes to materials management and resource recovery. Once industry leaders break the single-stream cycle, the big haulers will follow with crafting an alternative, effective system. Simple Economics 101 may prove the best pathway to fixing a broken recycling system riddled with contamination.


  1. Thanks for this great, educational article. I never understood why San Francisco switched from where we had to sort our recyclables years ago, to throwing everything into one can. I will forward this blog to our SF Dept of Environment leadership. Thanks! Sandy

  2. Thanks so much Sandy! Your support is greatly appreciated.


  3. Thank you very much for your article. I cannot wait to read the rest of the series.
    J.D. Villegas

  4. J.D., thank you for taking the time to read the article and commenting - means so much! I too am excited to witness what comes through the Fingertip Press in future articles (often articles take on a life of their own!)

  5. This is a very helpful explanation of current market conditions! I forwarded to several listservs.

    1. Thanks so much Gary! I appreciate you taking the time to read the article and comment. ... and I am honored you shared the article within your prominent network.

  6. I wish this information would be circulated in the mainstream media. In our area, a HUGE number of source-separated office programs that generated clean material for decades, have switched to single stream either because the tenants do it that way at home so they want to do the same at the office, OR because the trash hauler has convinced them it's "better."

    1. Hello Valerie,

      thank you for taking the time to read the article and comment. my guess is the office buildings were required to switch to single-stream as it is the only option offered by the haulers, the ones who are saying there is a recycling crisis.

      In Atlanta we have a couple of small, grass roots options - I use one for my home recycling, instead of using the condo's single-stream recycling.

      A few years back Ei launched the Source-Separated Materials Recycling Template in order to dismantle the big hauler single-steam recycling monopoly. The template building is in a holding pattern right now. Here is the website page link:

    2. valerie2@vangelinc.comDecember 7, 2016 at 2:35 PM

      It wasn't the only option - they left the local independents (like myself) because the haulers would "credit" their trash bills. Look forward to reading referenced link!

  7. Excellent article, Holly. Very educational and reinforces the point that we must focus on material capture rates, not only diversion. These items are resources, not waste. We'll do our part in sharing and spreading the word. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks so much Rick! You are an invaluable Ei Partner. Sorry for my delay in replying to your kind, supportive comment.

  8. Very informative article, thank you. Tara

  9. Thank YOU Tara for taking the time to read the article! Also, I assume you are the same Tara who shared the article on LinkedIN - much appreciated! Tomorrow is the "Recycling: The Business Case" webinar the article published in time to promote. It is a free webinar - here is the link:; I co-present with the Container Recycling Institute President Susan Collins - EXCITED!

  10. Contamination does often result from consumer confusion. Far too often, consumers are not sure what goes where. They may put combustibles like newspaper in a bag that is intended only for things that cannot be made into paper products. A clear list has to posted where it is easy for even the youngest members of society to understand how to sort their materials for recycling.

    1. Dennis, thank you for taking the time to read the article and comment. Education is key to cleaning up our recycling streams. In my perspective, most folks sincerely care yet are confused. Yet I am not a single-stream recycling fan on any level - dual-stream with fibers separated from plastics, glass & metals is great.

      Again, thank you!


  11. Tweeted to my followers - such a great explanation of how it all works and putting plastics in perspective.
    Register Plastic Free July

    1. Thanks, Bren! I sincerely appreciate your compliment on the article and sharing it with your followers. Holly