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Single-Stream Recycling: A (Mostly) Unbiased Opinion Piece
by Jessica Thacker, Program Manager/Education and Outreach Coordinator, Canyonlands Solid Waste Authority

Occasionally considered the red-headed middle stepchild of the recycling world. Not as pure as the over-achieving eldest known as source-separated (or multi-stream) recycling nor is it the chaotic free- for-all of the youngest who just throws everything away. Casting sibling dynamics aside, single-stream recycling does get a bad reputation from time to time. However, single-stream recycling can be beneficial in a variety of ways. Let’s think of it as a companion, rather than a competitor, to other types of recycling. It is from this companionship in single-stream recycling that this author was educated in the ways of responsible waste management. So, I encourage you to put on the kettle, sit back, and join me for a tale of recycling self-discovery.

Back in my small Tennessee hometown nestled at the base of the Smoky Mountains, recycling was unheard of. All the families simply put everything in a trash bag, brought it to some banged up metal container in the woods, and never gave it another thought. Anyone who recycled in any capacity was immediately labeled weird or a hippie. Fast forward several years and I found myself in Salt Lake City, required to participate in their single-stream recycling program. I was baffled by this blue can. What was its purpose? Why was it necessary for me to use it? What was I supposed to put in it? Slowly, through education and research with the occasional misstep or two, I learned how to properly use the single-stream recycling bin, discovered the concept of wish-cycling (the action of placing an item in the recycling bin hoping it will be recycled), and even recycled my first mattress! With each bottle and can dropped, I felt like Captain Planet. Certainly aging myself here with that 1990’s reference, but you get the picture.

A couple years later, I found myself in Moab working part-time at the Community Recycle Center which lead to a recycling revelation. It was there that I learned the model of source-separated recycling and other avenues of recycling such as Universal and Electronic Waste recycling. I was confounded once again! Was source-separated better than single- stream? Was I even recycling right? Had my previous recycling efforts been in vain? I hadn’t expected to mark off “Recycling Conundrum” on my bingo card of life. Fortunately, logic with the helping hand of more education, made me realize that both types of recycling were valuable in their own way. With source-separated recycling, I could provide a higher quality item with less contamination but through single-stream I could recycle materials that weren’t accepted in the source-separated stream. Both channels allowed me to remove a large percentage of would-be trash, effectively kicking my can to the curb. My ol’ neighbors would be aghast at such hippie behavior - GOOD.

In all sincerity, there is no “right” way to recycle. Recycling is better counted as a collaborative effort, a mixture of pathways, and a melting pot of options. The system is advancing and evolving. There are pros and cons to each method, just as there are with any other action we take in life. At the end of the day, they all fall under the family of recycling – no matter how dysfunctional. Recycling is but one way to safeguard and celebrate our mother. Mother Earth.

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