Opinion: Single-Stream Recycling is Performative Recycling

By Anastasia Volciak, Guest Columnist 

Living most of my life in Europe, I have seen a plethora of effective multi-stream recycling systems that significantly reduce more waste than the typical single-stream recycling system found in most of the United States. It is unrealistic to change the whole system without additional research being conducted, but America cannot keep recycling only 35% of waste nationwide—a number that has remained fairly constant in the past decade despite claims of progress.

Single-stream recycling, a nationally praised and award-winning method, has been used at Gettysburg College since 2009.  Single-stream recycling is a system in which all recyclables are placed into one single bin by the consumer. The mixed-up recycling is picked up and compacted by trucks before being taken to a materials recovery facility to be sorted—an outdated and expensive process—and sold to markets. 

Anastasia Volciak (Photo William Oehler/The Gettysburgian)

Anastasia Volciak (Photo William Oehler/The Gettysburgian)

Contamination can come from many sources—if there is more than 5% non-recyclable material, it all gets trashed. Last year, a plastic shipping bag recycling program that ran in CUB examined the proliferation of plastic and Amazon shipping bag contamination in recycling containers throughout the building. Plastic bags are a product that can be recycled only through specialty programs—some companies accept them but trash collectors do not. My involvement in the new glass recycling dropoff point here in Adams County taught me that glass, which is recyclable, is not actually recycled here. WM uses glass to make landfill roads at the materials recovery facility in Elk Ridge, Maryland. Instead of ending its infinite product life cycle, the glass recycling drop-off point will allow for glass to be reused, as it is intended after CAP Glass, one of the nation’s largest recyclers of glass, processes it. We hope to work with facilities to ensure that glass is taken to the dropoff point routinely by employees instead of having to rely on volunteers. The college should offer more ways to opt into these specialty programs to allow for recyclable material to go to the right place and prevent wasting finite resources. 

Single-stream recycling only works if students know what they should be recycling and care enough to listen. There should be more easily accessible resources available to students on what can be recycled at Gettysburg and it needs to be consistent—-not just when recycling is trendy on campus during the “Race to Zero Waste” contest. Old sustainability brochures from the college told students to engage in wishful recycling, ignoring contamination entirely. There is also a false perception that recycling doesn’t matter, as WM has been seen putting trash and recycling into the same trucks because their fleet includes “split-body” vehicles, which have 2 compartments to separate trash and recycling. 

In order to reduce waste, Gettysburg must move to a dual or multi-stream system. Despite laws that promote the usage of single-stream recycling, municipalities nationwide have begun the transition to dual or multi-stream recycling to appeal more to domestic recycling markets. In Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, the transition allowed collections costs to fall as residents were no longer charged to dispose of paper while tonnage of recycling increased. Recycling participation rates can remain consistent with either system if there is proper consumer education, but only dual-stream recycling leads to higher-quality and more marketable recycled goods. While it is imperative that we first attempt to reduce our waste, the inefficiencies of the single-stream recycling system across the whole country, not just in Gettysburg, must be addressed if we are to move into a more sustainable future.

This article originally appeared on page 6 of the No. 2 October 2023 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.

Author: Gettysburgian Staff

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