In recent years, the world has witnessed a growing concern for the environment and the need for sustainable practices. Recycling has become an integral part of this movement, and one approach that has gained significant popularity is single-stream recycling. This innovative method has revolutionized the way we recycle, making it easier and more convenient for individuals and communities to participate in the recycling process.

The introduction of single-stream recycling has made it easier for consumers to participate in recycling efforts. Gone are the days of sorting paper, plastic, cardboard, and glass into separate containers. This streamlined approach, in theory, should boost recycling and diversion rates. However, convenience comes with certain challenges. Confusion regarding what can and cannot be recycled, coupled with contamination issues, creates problems at recycling recovery facilities.

In this blog, we explore the pros and cons of single-stream recycling and emphasize the importance of striking a balance between convenience and quality. Without waiting further, let’s explore the concept of single-stream recycling and its impact on our journey towards a greener future.!

Recycling Vs Landfills and Incinerators

What Is Single Stream Recycling?

Single-stream recycling, also known as “fully commingled” or “single-bin” recycling, is a system where all types of recyclable materials are collected together in a single container. Unlike traditional recycling methods that require individuals to separate different types of materials (such as paper, plastics, glass, and metals) into separate bins, single-stream recycling allows for the co-mingling of all recyclables in one bin.

Single-stream recycling is a convenient approach where all recyclables are placed in a single bin or cart, eliminating the need for sorting by consumers and businesses. These materials are collected together in one truck and then sorted at the materials recovery facility (MRF).

Another approach that many states and cities still favor is dual-stream recycling. This method involves the segregation of plastics, glass, and metals from paper and cardboard. Haulers make use of separate trucks to collect these different materials for recycling purposes.

Both single-stream and dual-stream recycling accept common materials such as plastic bottles and packaging (typically those labeled with a 1 or 2 in the recycling symbol), paper and cardboard, magazines, catalogs, newspapers, cans, clean aluminum foil, and clean jars and glass containers.

While dual-stream recycling is generally considered more efficient, particularly in reducing contamination levels, single-stream recycling is still more widely used across the United States. The choice between the two methods depends on local infrastructure and preferences.

Recycling facts

How Does Single-Stream Recycling Work?

The process of recycling begins with the placement of recyclables in curbside bins. These materials are then collected by specialized trucks and transported to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). At the MRF, a combination of machines and employees work together to sort the materials into different categories. The specific sorting methods may vary among facilities, but commonly used equipment includes conveyor belts, screens, forced air systems, magnets, and scanners, all of which aid in the identification and grouping of materials.

Single stream recycling sorting process typically follows these steps:

1. Unloading: Materials are unloaded from the collection trucks and placed onto a conveyor belt. During this stage, employees manually remove any non-recyclable items that may have been mistakenly included.

2. Deck Screens: The recyclable items are transferred to a series of deck screens. These screens are designed to separate the materials based on weight. Heavier items such as glass or metals drop through to the bottom screens, while lighter materials like paper, cardboard, and plastics remain on the top.

3. Magnetic Separation: The heavier materials that drop through the screens are passed under a magnet. This helps remove any metal items, such as cans or tins, which are attracted to the magnet and separated from the rest of the materials.

4. Quality Control: Staff members at the recovery facility conduct a thorough check to ensure that the sorted items are on the correct path and properly categorized according to their material type.

5. Fine Sorting: The lighter layer of materials remaining on the screens is further sorted by workers. They separate the materials into separate containers designated for paper, cardboard, and newsprint.

6. Packaging and Shipping: Finally, the sorted materials are placed into assigned bins or containers and transported to a recycling facility. At the recycling facility, they undergo further processing to be transformed into new materials.

This systematic sorting and processing of hazardous waste recyclables play a crucial role in maximizing the recovery and reuse of valuable resources, promoting sustainable waste management practices, and reducing the burden on landfills.

importance of aSingle-stream recycling

Pros and Cons of Single Stream Recycling



Encourages consumers to recycle by reducing their responsibility to separate materials, making recycling more convenient. Single-stream recycling often leads to aspirational recycling, where non-recyclable materials are mistakenly added to the bins.
Allows for a “single” collection, leading to potential reductions in garbage collection frequencies, costs, and emissions. Mixed materials in single-stream recycling result in lower quality, which can lead to contaminated waste being sent to landfills, especially broken glass and paper.
Lower upfront costs make it easier for municipalities to initiate recycling programs. Higher costs may be incurred in sorting and processing facilities, which can potentially result in lower recycling rates or the export of materials with little transparency in terms of final processing.
Automated sorting technology minimizes the need for manual sorting of materials, streamlining the process. The inefficiency of material separation can result in low-quality recycled material, and manual monitoring and sorting are still necessary in some cases.


Single Steam vs Dual Steam Recycling

Here’s a comparison table highlighting the key differences between single-stream recycling and dual-stream recycling:

Difference Single-Stream Recycling Dual-Stream Recycling
Sorting Materials are co-mingled in a single container, with sorting done at the recycling facility using advanced technologies. Materials are sorted by residents into separate containers (e.g., paper in one bin, plastics in another) prior to collection.
Convenience Offers convenience to residents as there is no need for sorting different recyclables at home. Requires residents to sort recyclables at home, which can be more time-consuming and may lead to lower participation rates.
Collection Recyclables are collected together in one bin during curbside pickup. Requires separate collection of different recyclable materials, often requiring multiple bins or separate collection routes.
Contamination Mixed recyclables may increase the risk of contamination if non-recyclable or improperly sorted items are included. Lower risk of contamination as materials are already pre-sorted by residents.
Recycling Rates Can potentially lead to higher recycling rates due to the simplicity of the process, leading to increased participation. May have lower recycling rates due to the additional effort and potential confusion involved in sorting materials.
Infrastructure Recycling facilities require advanced sorting technologies to efficiently separate mixed materials. Facilities need to handle separate collection and processing of different material streams.
Cost Initial investments may be required to upgrade recycling facilities to handle single-stream recycling. May require additional collection infrastructure and resources to manage multiple streams.
Environmental Impact Can divert a larger volume of recyclables from landfills, promoting resource recovery and reducing energy consumption and emissions. While still effective in diverting recyclables, the separate streams may result in slightly lower overall recycling rates and resource recovery.

Both single-stream recycling and dual-stream recycling have their advantages and considerations. The choice between the two methods often depends on factors such as community preferences, infrastructure capabilities, and desired recycling rates.

Final Thoughts

Promising advancements are underway to address the emissions generated during the transportation and processing of plastic and other recyclable materials. The urgency to tackle the escalating issue of plastic pollution is exemplified by IBM’s projection that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. This unsettling forecast has spurred the development of innovative technologies such as IBM’s VolCat.

The VolCat technology represents a catalytic chemical process specifically designed to break down certain plastics, known as polyesters, into a substance that can be reintroduced directly into plastic manufacturing machines. This process enables the creation of new products from recycled material. The aim is to reduce the accumulation of plastic waste and promote a circular economy by increasing the utilization of recycled plastics.

While recycling has made significant progress in recent years, there is still room for improvement. The implementation of new technological solutions holds the potential to optimize consumer convenience, increase the volume of materials recovered, and enhance the quality of recycled materials. These advancements strive to streamline the recycling process, enabling the efficient handling of various materials through a single-stream approach. The ultimate goal is to achieve a more sustainable and effective recycling system that mitigates environmental impacts and supports the transition to a circular economy.


    1. How to avoid single-stream recycling contamination?

      To ensure you’re recycling correctly and making a positive impact, follow these guidelines:

        1. Remember to recycle all your empty metal cans, plastic bottles, and jugs. It’s important not to overlook these common items.
        2. When it comes to paper and newspaper, place them in a paper bag before tossing them into the recycling bin. This step helps keep them clean and ready for the recycling process.
        3. Only recycle glass bottles and jars that are empty. It’s crucial not to include any glassware or other glass items that can’t be recycled.
        4. Avoid putting plastic bags or plastic wraps in the recycling bin. These items tend to cause issues in the recycling process and are better handled separately.
        5. Be mindful not to dispose of any leftover food, dishes, or glasses in a single-stream recycling container. Stick to recycling materials that are meant for that specific purpose.
        6. Pay attention to labels and symbols on recycling bins. By using standardized versions on the bins you utilize, you can prevent confusion and ensure that materials are sorted correctly.

      By following these simple guidelines, you’ll be contributing to a more effective and efficient recycling system.

    2. What is the difference between single and dual-stream recycling?

      Single Stream recycling simplifies the recycling process by allowing you to place all your recyclables in a single bin for curbside pickup. On the other hand, Dual Stream Recycling requires you to separate your recyclable items into different bins. For example, you would put paper and cardboard products in one bin, plastic in another, and so forth.

    3. Is single or dual stream more cost-effective?

      There is no definitive answer to which one is more cost-effective. Some argue that single stream processing is more expensive due to equipment costs and challenges with material separation caused by high contamination levels. Conversely, others contend that dual stream processing is costly due to the complexities of collection, requiring specialized trucks and longer pick-up times.