Single-Stream Best Practices

Recyclables are resources; they aren't just diverted wastes. Therefore, the goal of a resource management system should be to conserve those resources by returning high-quality materials for manufacturers to use in making valuable new products.

Local governments control recycling programs. Local waste management officials have to balance the costs and benefits of various options to come up with a recycling program that meets local needs. The first step in establishing an effective recycling program is to set programmatic goals. Decide whether you want to maximize diversion or provide commodities to manufacturers; collect as many material types as you can or only what is marketable; sort processed material to meet market specifications or sell it mixed for someone else to sort; buy more equipment or use more labor. Once goals are set, look for collectors and processors to provide all the desired services at the best price.

Single-stream collection of recyclables is an attractive option. This method reduces collection costs, has the potential to increase recovery rates, and can increase supplies to manufacturers of recycled products. On the other hand, it increases processing costs and, unless processing is done right, it can increase manufacturing costs.

Because some processors do not maintain the quality of processed materials, individual paper mills have experienced yield losses from 2% to 16%. The paper industry spends more than $2 million a year to replace nonfiber materials mixed in with paper. Plus, paper companies have faced substantially increased maintenance costs to repair damage caused by nonfiber materials sent to their mills.

For a successful single-stream recycling program, the processor should be able separate what is mixed together and produce the quality feedstock materials that will maximize revenues. Require processors to get feedback about materials quality from the manufacturers who buy your recyclables. The service contract should require the marketed materials to meet manufacturers' specifications. Offer incentives as rewards for cleaner recyclables, and impose penalties if the work is not done right.

Promote Your Program

Promote your program 'early and often.' Communicating with customers is an ongoing activity, and not something you should leave to the garbage collector. Tell the public what to recycle, what not to recycle, how to prepare their recyclables, and what happens to the recyclables. No single message will reach all citizens, so use multiple media.

Provide instant feedback to residents. Produce and use 'improper preparation' and 'noncollection' notices to drive the point home.

Collection Tips

Don't collect materials if you don't have a market for them, except for plastics. Residents can become so confused about what plastics are and aren't recyclable that you stand to recover more PET and HDPE if all plastic containers are collected than if only PET and HDPE are collected.

Automated systems allow the use of larger collection containers and yield higher recovery rates from higher participation. These systems allow collection of more material types, make storing recyclables easier, and make it easier to get the materials to the curb. They also reduce worker injuries and the associated costs, reduce litter on windy days, and keep the paper dry on rainy days.


When planning for processing, seek to balance the amount of material received with the processing equipment's capacity. When equipment is loaded beyond its capacity, the quality of the processed materials is reduced. Keep in mind that the cost of sorting can be justified by the added market value of the processed materials, and don't skimp on needed staffing.

Design the system to process whatever streams of materials your facility will receive single-stream and dualstream, residential and commercial. Be prepared for seasonal changes and for future changes in the markets for your recovered materials.

Quality control steps should include sampling collected materials to identify any contaminants that are brought to the processing facility, as well as sampling processed recyclables to make sure the right materials are going to the right buyer. Also sample the residue after processing to make sure recyclables are not being discarded.

Regular reports allow you to track how well the program is working and whether its goals are being achieved.

Richard Gertman is the owner of Environmental Planning Consultants, San Jose, Calif.