“Single stream” isn’t a euphemism for some new and detrimental Army Corps of Engineers water management program. It’s a recycling system being deployed all over the continent in cities like San Francisco, Toronto, Denver, Tucson, San Jose, Philadelphia, and Dallas. Most new recycling facilities are being built with this in mind, and Boulder, Colo. is the newest entrant to the scene thanks in large part to the leadership of grassroots non-profit recycling group Ecocycle.
Single stream recycling helps cities divert 50 percent, 60 percent, even 70 percent of their waste from the landfill by allowing households to put all their recyclables in the same bin: cans, bottles, paper, cardboard, you name it. No more sorting and separating, and no doubt the simplicity of single stream has been a major component of its ability to boost recycling rates. But its larger impact probably results from what can go into that recycling bin that now stands unused: compost. A huge amount of municipal solid waste is compostable, 30 percent or more, but this material usually ends up in the landfill, where it decays anaerobically into climate-screwing methane gas.
Many folks don’t compost at home, but probably would if it could all go into a bin and be carted away. What this leaves them with is a recycling bin, a compost bin, and a “whatever’s left” bin, which itself stands to shrink as the importance of the other two takes over, and industry is coaxed or goaded into designing packaging that is reusable, recyclable, or compostable. The end game of that? Zero waste.