Choosing to be Single

Communities are finding that two isn’t always better than one, especially when it comes to recycling operations.

Improving the environment and increasing efficiency are at the top of many communities' to-do lists. That helps explain why so many cities continue to make the switch to single-stream recycling. At the end of June, the first single-stream, municipal recycling program in Nevada began in the Lake Tahoe area. Austin, Texas, is launching the service in October, and the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority is retrofitting its Hartford regional processing facility to handle single-stream recycling, making the service an option for 70 surrounding cities and towns. And those are just a few of this year's developments.

“Single stream is here to stay,” says Julie Ketchum, government affairs manager for Waste Management of Minnesota. “It's a better way to collect recyclables and optimize programs, and municipalities are going to achieve higher rates that way.”

Ketchum says that when cities in her region switch to single stream, they see, on average, a 15 percent increase in the amount of material collected per household per month. Across the country, the increase ranges between 10 and 30 percent for Waste Management-served communities, depending on the program, the location and how much residents already are recycling.

Baltimore, for instance, started its single-stream recycling program in January and already has seen a 26 percent increase in tonnage recycled. For the first six months of the year, the city recycled 6,900 tons compared to 5,791 tons during that period in 2007. The move is part of a broader initiative to create a “cleaner, greener Baltimore.” But the switch also is cutting down on costs, says David E. Scott, director of the Department of Public Works.

Previously, the city picked up recyclables on two different days — one day for paper, and the other for cans, bottles and glass. “It was challenging to keep up with that and was incurring overtime,” Scott says. “We also recognized that the industry is moving toward single stream.” Now the city is collecting recyclables once every two weeks, with residents having the choice between an 18- and 25-gallon bin. Employees who are no longer needed to collect recyclables have been offered other positions with the city. Where to send the materials wasn't a concern since a Waste Management Recycle America materials recovery facility (MRF) in the area already was accepting single-stream materials.

To plan the collection program, city representatives met with the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, which conducted a large portion of research. This included looking at how other cities were running their single-stream programs. The city also held several community meetings to ask residents what they thought about the potential program.

So far, the city has been pleased with the results, Scott says. In addition to an increased participation rate, Baltimore has seen a boost in revenues generated from recycling. “When you make it convenient, more people participate,” he says.

The Baltimore City Paper named the single-stream program the “Best Green Neighborhood Initiative” in its September “Best of Baltimore 2008” feature. With more residents becoming interested in recycling, the city also is starting to offer it at large festivals and events.

Education has played a role in the program's success. Before the launch, Tonya Simmons, recycling coordinator for the city, appeared on local TV shows to discuss what materials could be put in the recycling containers. The city also recruited “block captains” to assist in the education efforts. The volunteers go door-to-door, answering neighbors' questions about single-stream recycling, passing out flyers and encouraging them to participate.

It Depends …

Looking at other cities as models for a potential recycling program is essential. Yet it's important to keep in mind that what works for one city doesn't always work for another. That proved true for Palm Springs Disposal Services (PSDS) when the firm began offering single-stream recycling to Palm Springs, Calif., residents in July. PSDS had been providing the service in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., since 2005. While that program provided the firm with some experience, launching single-stream recycling in Palm Springs presented a different set of challenges, says Rick Wade, general manager for PSDS.

For instance, many Palm Springs homeowners use their property as a second home. Because they often are not at their properties during the week, nearly 40 percent of the city's homeowners subscribe to a walk-in garbage and recyclables collection service so that their containers don't have to sit out on the curb all week. Under the terms of the service, collection workers pick up a homeowner's containers from the yard or other location, carry them to the curb for unloading and return them.

Because of the prevalence of this service, starting an automated recycling operation was a concern. In fact, PSDS was in talks with the city council for years before getting the switch from a two-bin system to automated, single-stream recycling approved, Wade says. To make the program more convenient, PSDS does offer residents an optional walk-in service for $4.72 per month.

Also, in Desert Hot Springs, residents are provided two separate containers for recycling and waste. Yet in Palm Springs, subscribers had to procure their own containers for both waste streams. When the automated recycling collection began, they were given a 68-gallon cart for their recyclables, but not one for their waste. PSDS had to focus some of its education efforts on informing subscribers that they couldn't put their regular trash in the recycling cart.

Despite a few challenges, some community characteristics proved beneficial during the switch. “Many of the people that live here have moved from areas with automation, so they are familiar with this type of system.” Wade says. “Also, whereas single-stream recycling was newer in communities in the '90s, now it's not unfamiliar. That helped a lot.”

To fund the purchase of vehicles, carts and other equipment, the Palm Springs approved a $2 million grant from the city's Solid Waste Diversion Facility Fund to PSDS. Wade says the city's original intent was to build a processing facility with the funds, but it ended up putting the money toward a single-stream system instead. PSDS used the grant to acquire natural gas-powered McNeilus AutoReach side loaders, which the firm also has used in Desert Hot Springs since 2005.

The firm still is gathering data, but already the city has boosted its tonnage rate 65 percent, and participation has increased four-fold. The city's goal is to increase residential recycling from 1,450 tons to 4,500 tons per year. Wade attributes the boost, in part, to residents feeling more comfortable with the automated system.

With manual collection, residents used open containers for their recyclables, resulting in scavenging, which made some people uncomfortable. With the lidded containers, some scavenging still occurs, but Wade says it has decreased and is making subscribers feel better about putting recyclables on the curb.

Wade recommends looking at a community's demographics before switching to a single-stream program. “You may need more education in certain areas,” he says. “Look at what the waste generation types are and whether you have a large percentage of multifamily or seasonal residents. That's what we've had to investigate before we went through with the plans.”

Sorting It Out

Like Baltimore, PSDS isn't running its own MRF. Instead the material goes to Fontana-Calif.-based Burrtec Waste Industries' facility in Riverside, Calif. PSDS, however, is in the process of building a new MRF in conjunction with Burrtec, which will go online in the next 18 months. The facility is being designed by and will use equipment from National City, Calif.-based CP Manufacturing.

Before building a MRF that can process single-stream materials or retrofitting a current one, Richard Crockett, general manager of Material Recovery Transfer Operations for San Bernardino and Riverside counties, recommends visiting numerous facilities and asking plenty of questions, not just of sales representatives, but also of the MRF operators who deal with the equipment daily. “There are four or five major manufacturers of the equipment, and they all have their own take on how to do things,” he says.

In visiting other facilities, cardboard screens at the beginning of the screening system is one thing Crockett decided he wanted. “There is a substantial amount of cardboard that if you can recover at first, the cost is well covered,” he says. He remains undecided, however, on optical sorting equipment, which he says works well when the containers are clean, but otherwise can cause contamination.

Regardless of what equipment an operator settles on, “expect it to take three to six months to reach optimum efficiency — for the system to learn your materials,” Crockett says. “Take it slow; don't try to shove it through.” Also be patient with the building process itself. He adds that conception to final construction typically takes a minimum of 18 months, “if you're lucky.”

York, Penn.-based Penn Waste, recently went through this process when converting both its collection and processing operations to handle single-stream materials. The firm's new 40,000-square-foot MRF, on which construction started in summer 2007, opened in February, and the company began single-stream collection in June. Before designing the facility in conjunction with Eugene, Ore.-based Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Penn Waste owner Scott Wagner toured facilities around the country to decide whether to have in-floor feed conveyors (he eventually decided to do so) and how many pre-sort and post-sort stations to include, as well as just to see what others were doing. The company's other facility, where the dual-stream materials used to be sent, is now being used to process containers and bail OCC.

The new MRF features an OCC separator, polishing screens and work station. Materials are hand-inspected at two different points during the process. With the new collection system, Penn Waste is allowing subscribers to put out any size cardboard as long as it's flattened and all packaging materials have been removed. Wagner says facility workers are paying attention to any increase in contamination from glass, now that broken glass gets mixed in with the newspaper, for instance. If quality checks reveal any problems, they adjust the screens.

“It's been a learning curve for us, and we've learned more and more about the material coming in and how to adapt,” Wagner says.

For the transition, Penn Waste also purchased 20 Freightliner chassis with Heil rear load bodies. When launching the single-stream program, the company changed its color scheme to white and lime green, which is reflected in the collection vehicles that also sport a decal on one side. “Putting 20 new trucks on the street on the same day was good for education,” Wagner says.

Moving over to single-stream recycling certainly isn't without its challenges. But communities continue to find that investing the time and money into the switch helps boost recycling rates and increase efficiency. The trend is also part of cities' increasing efforts to preserve the environment.

“We've been talking about sustainability and making sure we divert as much from landfills as possible through recycling, compost, reuse — even giving sofas away rather than putting them on the curb,” Scott says. “All of these things work together for a sustainable environment. Once you make it convenient and people are aware, they'll recycle.”

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.

For more recycling stories, visit and click on the Recycling/Processing link at the top of the page.