Friday, March 19, 2010

Single Stream vs Dual Stream Recycling


Many citizens have criticized the City Council's decision to change from the current dual stream recycling program to a single stream approach.

In the current dual stream approach paper and cardboard are kept separate from the glass, steel, and plastic containers. Under the proposed single stream approach the citizens would be required to put all recyclable materials in a single cart. After collection, they would then be separated by a contractor at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).


At the present time thousands of citizens voluntarily do what City Council proposes to pay a contractor to do in the future. Based on the advice of Tom McMurtrie, Ann Arbor’s Environmental Systems Analyst, and that of and the City Administrator, Roger Fraser, the Ann Arbor City Council voted to spend more than $6 million to make this change.

A recent study by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) supports the citizen position that it is undesirable to mix the two types of recycled material and then attempt to separate them later at a MRF. (1) The Executive Director of CRI, Susan Collins, summarizes their report in the statement: “you can't unscramble an egg”.

This report was brought to the attention of City Council by concerned citizens. The city Administrator commented that a response would be prepared by Tom McMurtrie. We have received a copy of Mr. McMurtrie's response. (2) We have reviewed it and have many comments.

Mr. McMurtrie states:

The report is basically a literature review compilation prepared by a Canadian based consultant whose specialty is industrial producer-responsibility and beverage container recovery systems. The report does not demonstrate expertise, other than literature references, in recycling markets, MRF’s or recycling collection and processing systems.”

In other words the report is a compilation of the literature, documenting the published experiences of others. This is exactly the type of information that is used for government regulations and decisions. When investing millions of dollars, or requiring others to invest millions, it is prudent to search for tested, proven, documented solutions.

Mr McMurtrie asks City Council to ignore the published literature because he asserts that the Container Recycling Institute does not have expertise in recycling. Perhaps Mr. McMurtrie should review Ms. Collins' resume: “Years in waste and recycling, 20. Accomplishments: As a consultant, Collins developed plans to help California municipalities reduce waste by 50%, and then helped implement those programs so the goals were met and in many cases exceeded. In 2008, she worked with the city of San Jose to draft major elements of that city’s zero-waste plan. Having served on the board of the California Resource Recovery Association for nine years, she is now a senior adviser to the organization.” (5)

Mr McMurtrie further states:

The role of curbside recycling, especially single stream curbside, is often presented by bottle bill opponents as a reason to not support container deposit systems. As a result, the CRI chose to fund and present this study as part of their push back against these bottle bill opponents. Unfortunately the report falsely presents single stream recycling as inconsistent with container deposit systems which it is clearly not. “

This is basically a diversionary tactic. Mr. McMurtrie asserts a hidden motive to the report and then attacks the motive he asserts. You might read the CRI report and see whether you believe the material supports his assertion; “the report falsely presents single stream recycling as inconsistent with container deposit”. It is true that single stream recycling is often encouraged as an alternative to bottle return laws by the segment of the industry that opposes return laws. But this is hardly a reason for Ann Arbor to adopt single stream recycling.

Furthermore, the intent of the report is not what is important. What is important is the referenced literature, and the fact that the literature documents problems with single stream recycling. Although Mr McMurtrie agrees that there are problems with single stream recycling, he states:

. . . .our processor (FCR) is proposing a state of the art system and can point to documented successes at their newest single stream plants. “

This is the fundamental argument Mr McMurtrie repeats in the remainder of his report. He asks the Ann Arbor taxpayers to spend more than $6 million to change from our current dual stream recycling program to single stream recycling. The best reason cited is “documentation” by the company that will greatly profit. Not peer reviewed published literature. Just “trust us” from the people that will profit. His presentation to City Council was supported by a power point presentation prepared by a consultant who will receive a $100,000 sole source contract to help in the transition to the single stream program.

In general, both supporters and opponents of single stream recycling agree on the following four items:

Single stream requires a large initial investment. So far Mr McMurtrie has outlined an investment of $6.5 million.
Single stream increases participation. There is some segment of the population that is not currently recycling who will participate if they do not have to separate the recyclables

Single stream recycling may decrease collection costs.

Single stream recycling increases sorting costs.

The CRI study states that the increased volume and decreased collection costs of single stream recycling is often insufficient to pay for the additional sorting costs. The CRI study asserts that this situation occurs if the recovered material from single stream recycling is lower in value. But it may also occur if the value of the recovered material is simply insufficient to pay for the additional cost of separation.

The CRI study also states that single stream is environmentally undesirable if it lowers the reuse of the recycled material. An important point that CRI stresses is that simply sending material to the MRF is not in itself beneficial to the environment. A benefit to the environment only occurs when the material is reused. The less energy and fewer new raw materials required to replace the original, the better it is for the environment.

Therefore in addition to the above parameters it is important to consider the:

Value of Recycled Materials

Environmental Aspects of Single Stream


This should be reason alone to cancel this program. The city is proposing to cut almost every program in the city budget, including police and fire. But at the same time Council will spend more than $6 million to convert from dual to single stream recycling.

At present only about 35% of the material processed at the Ann Arbor MRF is actually collected in Ann Arbor. The remaining 65% come from the rest of Washtenaw, Windsor, Toledo, Livingston Co., Oakland Co., & Wayne Co.( 6) But it is the Ann Arbor taxpayers alone who are asked to pay for the entire expansion of the facility. One of the “benefits” that was presented to Ann Arbor City Council when they were asked to authorize the additional $6+ million expense is that it would lower the cost of recycling in Saline.

Why should Ann Arbor taxpayers be asked to make an investment to lower the cost of recycling in other communities?.


Many states, such as California, have legislation requiring or encouraging municipalities to

divert more of their solid waste from landfills. The waste management industry promotes single stream recycling as the easiest approach to increase tonnage sent to the MRF. The hypothesized increase in participation is the primary reason behind the current enthusiasm for single stream recycling.

However, Ann Arbor does not have a state mandate to increase tonnage to the MRF. We should be careful not to confuse increased pounds of material per household with increased household participation. Ann Arbor already has a 90% household participation in the residential recycling program, and a recovery rate of approximately 50 percent of residential waste, so it is difficult to imagine much increase in residential recycling. (7)

The Ann Arbor single stream program will probably increase tonnage to the MRF, if for no other reason than more types of plastic will be collected. But there isn't any reason that the additional plastics could not be included in the present dual stream program.

Ann Arbor's commercial recycling program is not nearly as successful as the residential program, so a better solution would be to look for ways to improve the less successful commercial recycling program rather than spend millions modifying a successful one.


One of the major claims for single stream recycling is that it reduces collection costs. Logically it takes less time to empty one container than two.

The primary saving comes because automated collection is commonly used with single stream collection. However, automated collection is neither an essential component nor a limitation of either single or dual stream collection.

Other cities, such as Berkeley California are moving to automated collection from divided carts, while maintaining the benefits of dual stream recycling.(8)

Automated collection, either single or dual stream comes at the expense of a very high initial capital investment: $1,428.000 for carts, and $1,156,000 for new trucks, all at a time when the city has very limited resources and is cutting many other programs.


Single stream recycling will increase the annual sorting costs. If you mix materials together it will cost more to have a contractor separate them later. At present the citizens are not separating the materials as much as just not mixing them. Most of the paper stream originates in living room or office areas. The containers originate in the kitchen. This means that single stream recycling will actually require the additional step of combining the materials.

Single stream recycling will require extensive modifications to the MRF to separate the containers from the paper. The modifications and additional equipment is estimated to cost $3,250,000. Again, this will occur at a time when the city claims it must cut many expenses. The two materials that are easiest to sort and recycle are steel and aluminum. But there is little reason to believe much additional aluminum and steel will be collected from the residents of Ann Arbor. The single stream program will collect the additional plastics, type 4 through 7. But these plastics require additional processing to separate them from the type 1 and 2 plastics before they can be recycled.


The real question is not so much the change in value of the recycled material as it is simply the value of the recycled material and its reuse. The value of recycled materials has a history of volatility. The present market value of recyclable scrap material is low.

An important point to consider is that scrap aluminum has the highest resale value of any of the recycled materials. But Michigan has a bottle/can return law. This captures a very large percentage of aluminum beverage cans. Therefore Michigan municipalities have much less aluminum scrap in their recycle stream compared to municipalities in states without container return laws. This means that the total value of the Michigan recycle stream/ton is relatively low.

The proposed dual stream program will increase plastic recycling. But a monograph from the Oakridge National Laboratory states “Given current technology, social, and institutional constraints, the economic viability of recycling plastic waste is questionable. In many areas of the country, recycling can cost as much as $200 per ton as compared to about $40 per ton for landfill or incineration.”(9)

How have other cities responded? New York City suspended its recycling program in 2002 as a cost reduction measure.(10) It was later reinstated by public pressure, but whether or not it is cost effective is still an open question. In May of 2008 it was estimated it cost NYC a total of $267/ton for solid waste collection and disposal and $284/ton for recycled materials.(11) Solid waste disposal is very expensive for NYC because the waste is exported out of the state for disposal. In contrast, Michigan has a very low disposal cost and consequently imports waste from Canada and other states.

An example of the volatility in the value recyclable materials was reported from Oakridge Tennessee. A former Council member of the City of Oak Ridge Tennessee stated in May 2009 that the MRF operator had to pay $20/bale to have material removed from the site. The material was previously sold for $40/bale. (12)

It is important to remember that the primary advantage of single stream recycling to the Ann Arbor citizen is that the single stream program proposes to collect the additional types of plastics, type 4 through 7. Typically in the past these plastics have been exported to China. (13) However, exports of scrap plastic to China have decreased and there is concern that they may not rebound simply because China may now be generating sufficient scrap plastic internally. As mentioned before, these plastics could also be included in the present dual stream program. 

In his report Mr. McMurtrie states that: “The other factor to consider is the contract terms with the markets. FCR has chosen to develop long term contracts with the markets. While that did not give us as much revenue in the peak days of the market, it also allowed us to continue to market our materials when things bottomed out.” This implies that the resale value of the recycled material should not be a concern for Ann Arbor because the contractor will bear any unexpected costs.

The contract with Resource Recovery Systems Inc. is a 20 year contract from 1995 to 2015. What Mr. McMurtrie does not mention is that the contract was amended in 2006. In 2006 the contractor was given an additional $1.3 million because Resource Recovery Systems did not have adequate funds to meet their obligated expenses. (14) If a contractor can simply ask for more money and receive it, the concept of a long term contract is of far greater value to the contractor than to the city or the taxpayers.


The environment is the primary reason for recycling, yet it is the environmental aspects of single stream recycling that are the most troublesome. The CRI study and others have documented two ways in which single stream recycling can be undesirable. The first is in the use of the recycled material.

The CRI study comments that the best environmental use for a bottle is to reuse it. This requires the least amount of energy and does not require any new raw materials. The next best use is to remelt the bottle and use it to make a new bottle. This requires less energy and less raw material than using all new materials. For many years glass manufactures have always used some recycled glass, called cullet, in the manufacturing process. The least environmentally desirable use is to crush the bottle and use the crushed glass as fill. This may divert disposal from the landfill, but new bottles must then be made from new raw materials.

In the case of Ann Arbor, Mr. McMurtrie states “Currently our glass is marketed as a roadbed material at a landfill.” It is doubtful that sales of the crushed glass for this use pay the collection, sorting and transportation cost. Wouldn't it be better to make an effort to improve the environmental use of the presently collected material before spending more than $6 million to collect more?

The second problem with single stream recycling is that the scrap materials from single stream recycling are more likely to be cross contaminated. This is environmentally undesirable because cross contamination results in secondary discard. A purchaser of the recycled scrap from single stream sources may have to re-sort the material and discard a substantial portion as contaminated or unusable. This means it still goes to the land fill -- after extensive processing and transportation! The original recycling source cannot predict this, but may become aware of it later if the purchaser demands a lower price for the material.

How have other cities responded to the environment aspects of single stream recycling?
Berkeley California recently announced it would retain a dual stream collection, but would move toward automated collection. (15)

Roseville Minnesota, “ . . .a vibrant city known for its strong, safe neighborhoods, excellent business climate, quality schools and outstanding parks . . .  just minutes from downtown Minneapolis...” also decided to retain dual stream recycling.(16)

The University of Colorado at Boulder just completed a one year residential hall pilot program in single stream recycling. After evaluation, the university decided to implement an expanded dual stream approach . Dan Baril, Colorado University's Recycling Program Manager said: “It (the single-stream pilot program) made it easier for people to collect the recyclables, but all of the other negatives outweighed just the few benefits.” (17)

There is another undesirable aspect of the proposed Ann arbor single stream recycling. It will make recycling of toxic materials more difficult. Batteries, florescent lights, used engine oil will no longer be collected at the curb.

Citizens can take them to the drop off center. But the Ann Arbor drop off station now charges a $ 3.00 fee for simply entering the facility, and in many cases there is an additional fee for actually leaving the recyclable objects. Ironically one of the reasons the Ann Arbor drop off station gives as the reason for their new entrance fee is the low resale value of recycled materials. (18)

Charging additional fees is an incentive for citizens to simply discard hazardous waste along with the normal solid waste. Unfortunately this must be expected to increase the amount of toxic materials such as lead and mercury in the landfill. At the very time Ann Arbor is indirectly encouraging discarding of electronic devices in the landfill, the Michigan legislature has passed legislation in an attempt to reduce the amount of electronic waste in Michigan landfills. (19)

There are other negative environmental effects. The city has indicated it may stop the leaf collection program because there are insufficient funds in the solid waste program. Leaf collection benefits the quality of the Huron River. The city will spend millions for a program that is environmentally regressive while cutting one that improves the river water quality.


Single stream recycling will require an investment of over $6 million. Only about 1/3 of the material processed by the MRF originates in Ann Arbor. Therefore the citizens of Ann Arbor are being asked to to pay the capital investment that will benefit the region more than our city.

The resale value of recycled scrap is volatile and low at the present time. It is very difficult to accurately predict if the value of the scrap will pay the additional sorting cost of single stream recycling. In the city's proposed program it is the taxpayers who are taking the capital investment risk. Considering the present economic state of the city it is irresponsible to spend  in excess of $6 million for a major new nonessential program.

Independent studies have concluded that single stream recycling may be environmentally regressive because of the emphasis is on the amount of material collected instead of the reuse of materials

Other cities that have been leaders in recycling, such as Berkeley, California, have chosen to improve their existing dual stream program instead of converting to single stream. Roseville Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis also recently decided to retain dual stream recycling. The University of Colorado conducted a single stream pilot program before deciding to continue their dual stream program.

The City proposes to spend millions on single stream recycling while cutting exiting environmental programs. This has the potential to divert more toxic wastes to the land fill and reduce the water quality of the Huron River.


Ann Arbor should terminate the proposed transition to single stream recycling.

The existing dual stream recycling program should be maintained and improved.

Curbside collection of motor oil, fluorescent light bulbs, and batteries should be continued or resumed.

The leaf collection program should be continued.

Ann Arbor's other existing environmental programs which recycle toxic wastes or collect and compost organic wastes should be continued.


(1) Understanding economic and environmental impacts of single-stream collection systems; Clarissa Morawski ,Container Recycling Institute, December 2009,

(2) Response to: “Understanding Economic and Environmental Impacts of Single Stream Collection Systems by Container Recycling Institute (December 2009) Tom McMurtrie, January 15, 2010

(3) Single Stream Best Practices Manual and Implementation Guide by Susan Kinsella, Conservatree and Richard Gertman, Environmental Planning Consultants January 2007;

(4) Jaakko Pöyry Consulting (JPC) and Skumatz Economic Research Associates, Inc.
(SERA); Single-stream Recycling – Total Cost Analysis. Prepared for the American
Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), January 7, 2004.

(5) Women in Waste an Recycling, Novelty gone; now it is about achieving; Waste and Recycling News February 1, 2010

(6) City of Ann Arbor, Meeting Minutes Commercial Recycling Implementation Committee
Thursday, June 15, 2006

(7) City of Ann Arbor Press Release, November 12, 2008, Bryan Weinert, Solid Waste
Program Coordinator

(8) Berkeley, Calif. Adopts split-cart recycling plan, Waste and Recycling News, February 15, 2010

(9) Plastics Recycling: Economic, Social, and Institutional Issues,

(10), New York City Reneges on Recycling,

(11) Analysis of New York City Department of Sanitation Curbside Recycling and Refuse Costs, Prepared For Natural Resources Defense Council, FINAL REPORT
May 2008 Prepared by DSM Environmental Services Inc.

(12), Trash to treasure? Oak Ridge Recycle Program ,Leonard Abbatiello
May 04, 2009

(13), Do cities, businesses, and society benefit from recycling? LeonardAbbatiello, July 15, 2009,

(14) Memorandum from Sue McCormick to Mayor and Council, April 17, 2006.

(15) (8) above

(16) City of Roseville Recycling Pilot Program Summary. R. W. Beck, Inc. and Dan Krivit and Associates, December 2005

(17) When It Comes to Recycling, Is It Better to Be Single? Marisa McNatt, Earth, February 19th, 2010.

(18) A2 Journal, Heritage Newspapers, January 28, 2010

(19) Electronic Waste Takeback Program, Michigan DNRE,,1607,7-135-3585_4130_18096-208087--,00.html

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