Going With the Single-Stream Flow Enfield Joins ‘Zero-Sort’ Recycling

Sunday, October 13, 2013
Does that empty cereal box go in the cardboard or mixed paper bin? Is a tuna fish can considered aluminum or tin? And what about the plastic container that the roasted chicken from the supermarket deli came in: Recyclable or trash?

Leslie Clancy and her Enfield neighbors no longer have to make those weighty decisions. Enfield is the most recent Upper Valley community to embrace — and use local tax dollars to support — what is known as “single-stream” recycling.

All household recyclable items are treated alike. Plastic containers, cardboard, newspaper, cans and bottles are literally thrown (out) together.

No sorting required.

“In the old days, I would have thrown a tissue box in the trash,” said Clancy. “Now, I don’t have to think about it as much. It helps make me a better recycler.”

Before Enfield moved to single-stream recycling in August, Joan Decato had to drive to the town’s transfer station on the other side of town, where she was responsible for making sure each recyclable item got placed in the proper bin. Now, she throws all her recyclables in a 96 gallon container — paid for with Enfield tax dollars — that every two weeks she wheels to the end of the driveway. It gets emptied and taken away by Casella Resource Solutions, the regional waste hauling giant that the town contracts with. “Just throwing it all in one bucket is so great,” said Decato. (In New England, single-stream is often called zero-sort recycling, the brand name coined by Casella.)

Upper Valley communities that have initiated single-stream recycling programs in recent years run the gamut. Hartford, Hanover and Claremont are among the larger communities to follow the trend. Mid-sized towns such as Enfield, Plainfield and Norwich have also been persuaded that single-stream is both convenient and environmentally friendly. In the more rural corners of the Valley, ranging from Tunbridge to Orange, N.H., single-stream has its fans as well.

“Everybody loves it,” said Dorothy Behlen Heinrichs, who serves on the Selectboard in Orange, which went single-stream in May 2011. “Before, everyone was having to drive their stuff down to the transfer station in Canaan.”

Plainfield, which closed its town dump in the early 1970s, is paying $142,000 to Casella this year for trash and zero-sort recycling pickup. From time to time, someone at Town Meeting asks whether it’s money well-spent. Residents have indicated that the town’s current recycling method is not something they want to mess with, said Town Administrator Steve Halleran. “You get it to the end of the driveway, and you’re done with it,” he said.

Nationally, Madison, Wis., and other communities at the forefront of the sustainability movement have used single-stream for a decade or so. The thinking is that the easier it is, the more likely that people will choose a recycling bin over a trash can. “It was a pretty big breakthrough,” said Rosie Kerr, director of sustainability at Dartmouth College, which joined Casella’s zero-sort program in late 2010. “In (zero-sorting), you just do it. You don’t have to figure out what goes where. Because it can be done so easily, it’s a very positive user experience.”

And the more items that get recycled, the less stuff ends up in landfills. Along with being billed as good for the planet, more recycling often allows communities to save on landfill costs.

The downside is that paying Casella or another private company to pick up and haul away recyclables isn’t cheap. Hartford pays about $150,000 a year for Casella’s curbside every-other-week pickup service, while in Hanover the cost is roughly $130,000. In addition, Casella gets to keep the money it can make from selling the recyclables that it sorts and bales.

Nationally, there’s “still an on-going discussion” about the merits of single-stream recycling, said Ted Siegler, of DSM Environmental Services, a Windsor company that works for states and communities on solid waste management and recycling issues.

Critics argue that the lack of sorting at the household level can become problematic later on in the recycling process. Last month, Huffington Post wrote that the sorting technology used in single-stream processing plants still has room for improvement. Some materials coming out of these processing plants aren’t of high quality. The rejected materials often end up in landfills, defeating the purpose of recycling in the first place.

“Once stuff leaves the recycling plant, it heads to re-processors, paper mills and bottle makers who use the material to make new products,” Huffington Post wrote. “The re-processors don’t just care about quantity, they care about quality. If the recycled material is of inferior quality, they’ve got problems. And it would appear that many in the re-processing business are none too happy about single-stream recycling.”

The website referred to a 2010 report by the Container Recycling Institute, which stated, “on average, 40 percent of glass from single-stream collection winds up in landfills, while 20 percent is small broken glass ... used for low-end applications. Only 40 percent is recycled into containers and fiberglass.”

For communities that don’t offer curbside pickup there’s not as much of a financial incentive to go the single-stream route. By selling plastics, cardboard and paper collected at their transfer stations and landfills, communities “can make some money,” said Siegler.

An example being Lebanon.

The city earns roughly $100,000 a year on its recycling operation. Lebanon, which doesn’t have curbside trash or recycling services, still does its recycling the old-fashioned way.

Residents bring their household items to the recycling facility next to the city landfill on Route 12A. They are in charge of making sure that cardboard, mixed cans, steel cans, plastic bottles land in the correct bins. “Ninety-nine percent of people do the right thing,” said George Murray, the city’s solid waste manager.

Lebanon has explored going to a single-stream system, but opted to keep things the way they are, said Murray. Single-stream would likely require the city to fork over most, if not all, of its recycling revenue to Casella or another waste management company that operates a facility that sorts co-mingled materials.

Strafford is another community that has decided the opportunity to make a few bucks by selling recyclables is worth asking residents to do their own sorting. “If we did single-stream, Casella would get all the benefits,” said Dori Wolfe, who serves on the town’s recycling committee.

Through the first seven months of 2103, Strafford earned $3,700 from its recyclables to help offset the transfer station operating costs. Whether communities go the single-stream route or not, the push to increase recycling will undoubtedly continue.

“It’s good for us not to have the dump mentality,” said Wolfe. “It makes our communities better.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.