Single stream now, zero waste in the future?

By 
Geoff Buteau, Special to the Reporter
Jun. 5, 2009

Single Stream Recycling CartsSingle Stream Recycling CartsRecycling’s not as easy as throwing all waste into one bin then forgetting about it, but in a time of blooming green initiatives from the public, private ,and consumer sectors, the responsibility is increasingly falling on government and citizens alike.

The city of Boston has been trying for the last two years to make recycling easier on everyone, with their single-stream pilot programs that began in May 2007 in Jamaica Plain then expanded to the South End, Beacon Hill, the North End, Downtown, and, finally, West Roxbury. Though the rolling blue carts symbolizing the new single-stream system have been successful in Boston so far, according to newsletters detailing the results of the pilot programs, Boston’s recycling vision doesn’t end the official city-wide adoption of the program on July 1.

The city of Boston’s recycling director, Susan Cascino, said that in 40 years she’d “love to be able to say zero waste,” but acknowledges that it’s all market-driven. In other words, that demand has to come from the manufacturers who use recycled material for products. It’s not until that demand is made clear that investments can be made in advanced recycling techniques that divert additional items from the trash stream to the recycling stream, moving toward the best scenario: zero waste.

Cascino places that responsibility on government. “That’s where government comes in,” she said, “it’s our role to make sure these [recycling] carts have recycled content.” By having a steady stream of recyclables, manufactures will be able to depend on Boston and other cities for supply of the materials, hopefully resulting in demand from the manufacturers, and ultimately increasing the quality of life in the long term for the residents.

Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling, says the vision of recycling in the future leans toward producer responsibility, where manufacturers create products with their reuse and recyclability in mind. Though not fully in practice yet from the front- or design-end, he points to the province of Ontario where Coca-Cola contributes millions of dollars to the province’s government recycling efforts, serving as corporate steward of the environment. It’s because of these funds, Powell said, that Ontario, including the city of Toronto, is able to afford some of the most advanced sorting technology at their recyclable materials recovery facilities.

Cascino and her team are familiar with Coca-Cola’s efforts and would love its involvement with the city of Boston, but there are currently no similar agreements.

Right now, it’s Boston’s single-stream recycling initiative that’s on the top of the recycling director’s to-do list. Single-stream refers to the process by which all recyclable items, despite their metal, plastic, or paper makeup, are processed and organized by recycling plants. Essentially, all the items go on one conveyer belt, or stream, and are sorted either automatically or manually at the plant. This frees up residents and businesses to place items in one designated bin rather than sorting the items themselves, avoiding a complicated system with different recycling rules and requirements for each item.

Cleanliness was also a factor in adopting the system, she said. “One of the eye-catching things of this whole cart thing was cleanliness,” said Cascino, who noted that the adoption of single stream was a result of not only helping the environment, but also a step toward beautifying the neighborhoods.

As for challenges in moving toward the vision of limited to no waste, one is getting the residents of the city to participate. “As you probably know, if you were to survey the population and ask if recycling is a good thing, they would all say yes,” she said. She’s aware that one system doesn’t fit every neighborhood, but the city is making every effort to make the process easier, and provide information to help the residents through the transition. A 16-page instructional booklet about the new plan is on its way out to Boston residents along with other information sources.

In addition to Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, San Antonio, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and others are either in the process of adopting single-stream or have already done so. With variations in pickup frequency, color of bins, and catchy recycling slogan, each of these cities has a similar system to Boston’s, where all recycling goes in one bin, and trash and sometimes composting are separated out with other bins. Somewhere on its recycling website, each city cites the ease of recycling from the recycler’s perspective as one of the primary reasons for the adoption.