Diversion Dilemma

SINGLE-STREAM RECYCLING is appealing to many communities because the process encourages residents to participate in curbside programs. Recyclables are put into a single compartment on a collection vehicle and are sorted at a specialized materials recovery facility (MRF), rather than sorted by residents prior to pickup. But there is a price for this convenience.

Although single-stream collection boosts recovery rates and cuts collection costs, the quality of recovered fiber sent to pulp and paper mills is substantially diminished, thereby increasing overall costs system-wide, according to a recent report by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), Washington, D.C.

Commissioned by the AF&PA, “Paper Recycling: Quality is Key to Long-term Success,” is a compilation of a single-stream total cost analysis study conducted by Jaakko Poyry Consulting, Tarrytown, N.Y., and Skumatz Economic Research Associates, Superior, Co., and a recovered fiber quality study undertaken by R.W. Beck, Seattle.

Among the report's notable findings were that curbside collection costs for single-stream programs yielded savings of $10 per ton to $20 per ton and increased total recyclables collection by 1 to 3 percentage points. However, processing costs for these programs were $5 per ton to $15 per ton higher than dual-stream recycling programs.

Additionally, operating and maintenance costs for paper mills using recovered fiber from single-stream programs were, on average, $8 per ton higher than costs at mills using recovered fiber from dual-stream programs, according to the report. Overall system-wide expenses, including collection costs, processing at MRFs and mill utilization, increased an average of $3 per ton for paper collected in single-stream programs, the report concludes.

Indeed, while the use of recovered fiber by U.S. paper mills has steadily increased, the quality of recovered fiber from curbside recycling programs has declined in recent years, according to the AF&PA. Simultaneously, single-stream collection programs and MRFs are becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States, the report states. Domestic mills currently rely on recovered paper for 38 percent of their fiber needs, the AF&PA Recovered Fiber Executive Committee states in the report. It adds that the paper industry's recent increase in its recovery goal to 55 percent further underscores the need for quality recovered fiber.

Janet Kincaid, manager of fiber recovery and utilization for the AF&PA, says because of the decline in quality, the strong recovery rate “becomes a mute point: We could recover 75 percent of all paper but only have 62 percent that is usable,” she says.

To combat the diminishing quality of recovered fiber from curbside programs, the AF&PA has begun educating waste haulers, in particular, on the potential effects of single-stream collection on paper mills.

“We're working directly with the folks handling the material, with those who make recommendations to their customers on the type of recycling program they should choose,” Kincaid says.

While the AF&PA has not officially endorsed a particular curbside collection method, “obviously our preference would be dual-stream over single-stream,” Kincaid says. Contamination from glass and plastic is problematic for mill end-users of recovered fiber from single-stream recycling programs, she adds.

According to Kincaid, states' efforts to reach mandated diversion rates have helped to fuel the rising popularity of single-stream recycling programs. “Unfortunately, people are thinking that diversion means recovery,” Kincaid says. “On the collection side, things look great with single-stream programs, but for end-users there are costs. Those costs will eventually back up and hit communities.”


  • Total cost per year for U.S. paper mills using curbside old newspaper and residential mixed paper would increase approximately $50 million if single-stream programs were universally implemented.
  • Since 1998, 24 mills that solely used recycled fiber feedstocks have permanently closed due to economic pressures. Higher costs associated with reduced recovered-paper quality may force additional recycled mills to close.

Source: AF&PA