YOU Issue: Single-stream recycling

YOU Issue: Single-stream recycling

Here’s what readers asked for:

I’ve heard that it’s all a sham and it all just goes into a landfill, that the processes are super inefficient compared to regular recycling programs. I know many folks who don’t bother recycling at all because they don’t believe the city separates the recyclables from the garbage.—Kathleen Herring

By Jonathan Haynes

Charlottesville’s recycling system has confused many of our readers. Here’s what you need to know.

In short, residents who “don’t believe the city separates the recyclables from the garbage” are correct, and if your office claims to be recycling but doesn’t provide a separate recycling bin, it is probably just throwing everything in the trash.

Single-stream recycling means you don’t have to sort your recyclables (i.e., you don’t have to separate glass, paper, cardboard, and plastics), but you do have to keep recyclables separate from general trash. The term has been a source of confusion since Peter van der Linde used it to describe his processing plant, which accepted waste and recyclables in the same bag and tried to separate them later, resulting in high contamination levels for the recyclables. Van der Linde closed his household waste processing facility earlier this year.

Charlottesville offers free curbside single-stream recycling collection except at buildings that have dumpsters. That means recyclables must be in a separate bin from your regular garbage (the city provides carts for this, which it collects every two weeks). Albemarle County, by contrast, does not provide collection services at all. Residents must contract a private service, and many of those offer single-stream recycling.

Another option for recycling is the McIntire Recycling Center, which is operated by the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, a joint city-county program.

McIntire uses a source-separation model, which requires patrons to deposit glass, paper, plastics, and general waste into different bins. According to the RSWA website, it processes 98 percent of recyclable materials.

RSWA sells reusable material to private buyers and ships the remaining waste to a landfill in Amelia County.

“What we’re really doing with recycling is creating feedstock for certain industries,” says Phillip McKalips, director of solid waste at the RSWA. “Companies that produce aluminum cans would want recycled cans, because they’re at the right alloy levels.”

According to McKalips, single-stream is popular among trash haulers because it expedites the drop-off process. “Certain trash haulers only do single-stream recycling because they don’t have time to source separate at McIntire,” he says.

But critics say the single-stream method makes it harder for plants to categorize and process their recyclable inventory. “The quality of the materials is so poor, there are no real buyers,” says Albemarle Supervisor Liz Palmer. “The recovery rate is too low; China doesn’t buy it anymore.”

While McKalips doesn’t know the recovery rate for the city’s single-stream operation, he confirms that between 25 percent and 40 percent of recyclables in similar programs across the country are bound for the landfill.