Single or Dual Stream Recycling?

How the town of Wellesley should recycle has recently been the source of much debate.  Over the last few years, one thing has become clear – the town wants to go green.  The Power to Choose program, as well as organizations like Sustainable Wellesley and the town’s Sustainable Energy Committee, are all working together to make Wellesley a more environmentally friendly community.  When it comes to recycling, the Wellesley Public Schools currently uses a “single stream,” or “comingled” system.  There is a major push for the town to switch to a “dual stream” system.  So what are the differences, and which system should the town use?

The School Committee’s Decision

In the summer of 2011, the Wellesley School Committee decided that Wellesley’s schools would switch from a dual stream to a single stream recycling system.  The decision was immediately criticized by Andrea Giroux, a Wellesley environmental advocate, describing the decision as a “huge step backward.”  Three Wellesley High School seniors also started a petition to return to dual stream recycling, which has received hundreds of signatures to date.  Wellesley Public Schools currently still uses the single stream recycling system.

The Systems

In single stream (comingled) recycling, all recyclables can be put into the same bin, and are sent to a facility to be sorted.  The prevalence of single stream systems has been on the rise since the 1990s, and today many towns use the system.

In dual stream recycling, recyclables are sorted into separate bins before they are taken away.  This causes items to be already sorted for the most part by the time they arrive at a recycling facility, so only minimal sorting is necessary there.  Wellesley Public Schools used this system until the 2011-2012 school year.

The Pros and Cons

There are ups and downs to both systems.  Single stream recycling is an easier option, as the various items being recycled do not need to be sorted by those who want to recycle.  This is said to result in higher rates of recycling, due to its convenience.  However, there is some evidence that this is not always the case.  A study of several counties in Florida between 1996 and 2009 found that those which switched from dual to single stream recycling did not experience a significant increase in the recycling rate.  This could indicate that those who recycle are likely to continue recycling, regardless of the need to sort their recyclables.  If this were true, then increases in recycling rates due to convenience may not be as great as anticipated.

An advantage to single stream recycling is that collection costs are reduced.  A waste collection worker needs only to put the comingled recyclables into one compartment in a collection vehicle, not spend extra time sorting the contents of different recycling bins into separate containers on the truck.  This results in faster collection, and labor costs are therefore reduced.  However, Wellesley does not provide a waste/recyclable collection service, so the benefits of more efficient collection are irrelevant to Wellesley.

One of the issues with single stream recycling is that paper materials tend to be more likely to be contaminated by residues from containers being recycled with them.  This then decreases the value of the recycled paper.

Financially, single stream recycling is not necessarily cheaper than a dual stream system.  A 2008 report on single stream recycling in several Ontario, Canada municipalities found that the single stream system there was not less expensive, as was originally expected.  Costs were higher due to the extra sorting staff needed to pour over the comingled items, as well as the decrease in the value of recycled paper mentioned above.  The report concluded that dual stream recycling was a “more advantageous” option for the province, given its cost advantage.

Dual stream recycling also provides a financial advantage specific to Wellesley.  The town’s Recycling and Disposal Facility does not have to capability to sort comingled recyclables.  The town must pay a third party corporation to handle the sorting.  The RDF can, however, manage previously segregated items.  The recycled material can then be sold, at a financial gain to the town.

Which One is Right for Wellesley?

Upon examination of the two systems, it becomes apparent that dual stream recycling seems to be a better system for the Wellesley Public Schools to use.  Although single stream recycling may increase recycling popularity due to its convenience, it offers no advantage for the town of Wellesley through more efficient recyclable collection, as the town doesn’t offer the service.  High costs of labor, third party contracting, and decreased value of materials mean that single stream recycling is not less expensive than dual stream.

What’s more, the Wellesley Recycling and Disposable Facility would be able to generate revenues for the town by selling the pre-segregated recyclables from a dual stream system, as opposed to paying a private company to sort comingled recyclables.  In the end, dual stream recycling emerges as the best option for Wellesley.  We must hope that the School Committee decides to go back to the dual stream system.  Its financial and environmental benefits compared to single stream recycling cannot be ignored.

(Keenan Ashbrook)


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