For nearly 30 years, Americans have been honeymooning with a recycling system that seems too good to be true. Now, cities are waking up the realities of single-stream and taking action to change how they recycle.
For nearly 30 years, Americans have been honeymooning with a recycling system that seems too good to be true. Devised and widely adopted in the 1990s, “single-stream recycling” overhauled the underperforming process, taking our national recycling rate from 10.1% in 1985 to 25.7% in 1995 to nearly 32% in 2005. The convenience and simplicity of single-stream recycling was an easy sell for consumers and commercial businesses alike—whereas all recycling materials could be collected in the same receptacle (we’ve referred to it as “the magic bin”). However, it was the lucrative commodities market (the buyers of post-consumer material) that made single-stream irresistible for cities, municipalities, and the haulers that serve them. So, in 2021, why would any city, municipality, or business elect to do anything differently? Because if you can see past single-stream’s golden façade, you’ll discover that the system stopped working years ago. Now, as U.S. cities grapple with overstuffed warehouses, landfills at capacity, and a mountain of bills where there was once revenue, places like San Francisco, Seattle, and more have added back material streams—and accompanying them, recycling rates that outshine anything achieved by single-stream. As a growing contingent explores a different future, we delve into how single-stream made its mark, why it failed, and the cities finding success in dual-stream, multi-stream, and clean-stream systems.read more