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What Really Happens to Commingle Recycling?

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

Source-Separated Recycling vs. Curbside Recycling: Part 2

David Gardiepy

This is an image of commingle recyclables with paper, carboard, plastics, cans, and trash.
Commingle Recycling Bin at the Lane County Transfer Station located in Creswell Oregon.

The world is facing a severe problem. Our landfills are overflowing with waste, and we must find new ways to manage our trash. According to David Alloway of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, commingle recycling addresses the reality that, “The purpose of recycling is to reduce pollution and conserve resources. The more we recycle right, the more we reduce pollution and conserve resources”. Curbside recycling was touted as a quick fix for the problems of landfills and greenhouse gases, but it's actually one of the least efficient forms of recycling. In fact, there are times when curbside recyclables are sent to landfills, and this isn't what consumers perceive, nor is it an accurate reflection of how efficiently our curbside programs are functioning.

We’ve all heard about recycling and composting but do you genuinely know how these processes work? It turns out that commingle recycling is not as eco-friendly as it sounds. In fact, it can be hurting the planet more than helping it. While it is important to recycle, it is more important to recycle right. Let's explore what happens when you throw your recyclables into a commingle bin for pickup at home, at work, or if you are dropping them off at a transfer station.

Photos of Short Mountain Landfill located south of Eugene, Oregon.

Commingle recycling is a form of recycling that combines all recyclable materials together in a commingled receptacle.

Commingle recycling is a form of material collection that combines all recyclable materials together in a commingled receptacle and is the most common form of recycling in the United States. It is often used by companies who wish to reduce their cost per ton for managing waste streams since there are fewer sorting needs required to process commingle recycling compared to source-separated recycling.

Commingle recycling is also referred to as single stream, one bin, or ‘go green’ because most recyclables can be placed into one container without any sorting — apart from glass which is often collected on the side of the recycling receptacle.

This process reduces what would otherwise require multiple bins with different labels: one for plastics, one for mixed paper, and another for cans, etc. You will often see this source-separated system at public events with a dedication to waste reduction. This is where attendees can sort all their recyclables into large bins, separating them beforehand. An example of commingled recycling at public events is when stadiums or arenas collect all materials into a single recycling receptacle.

How much is recycled and why?

Before 2017, China was the primary importer of commingled plastic and paper recycling. When China banned the import of other nations’ highly contaminated materials, the world’s recycling industry felt an everlasting impact resulting in more than 70 communities in the United States halting plastic recycling collection in their commingle bin. Additional effects felt by the recycling industry included meager and even hostile prices for recyclable materials. Commingle recycling has become quite an expensive endeavor for many smaller trash haulers. In addition to China banning the contaminated commingle recycling, so did many other nations who are ill-prepared to deal or cope with the amount of contamination in a developed nation’s recycling.

As plastics are starting to be re-added to commingle recycling, many community members have asked the question of how much actually gets recycled. While this is a difficult question, many communities do not track what happens to their commingle recycling once it leaves their possession. For this reason, it is essential to look at the average reported by the Recycling Partnership’s Rob Taylor, who stated that anywhere from 16.9% to 22% of what gets put into the commingle recycling bin is trashed. It should be noted that this average is based on data from the Recycling Partnership and does not include recyclables diverted to waste-to-energy facilities. According to Ronald Mittelstaedt, CEO of Waste Connections, “residential recycling is not a good business because it is subsidized generally by the waste that is picked up at that home. The reality is that recycling is costing three to four times more than general or industrial waste.”

In 2016, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of plastic, paper, and metals to China. 30-70% of these mixed recyclables were ultimately contaminated by non-recyclable material and were never recycled. Instead, these materials ended up polluting China’s countryside and oceans. An estimated 1.3 to 1.5 million metric tons of plastic find their way into the sea off China’s coast each year. This is one example of how much plastic waste in the Pacific and Indian Oceans originated from developed nations.

Another factor that could be sending your recycling to the landfill is faulty sorting machines at Material Recovery Centers. Some programs and facilities are better funded than others and, therefore, will have better technology to sort out what belongs in the trash and what should continue its journey to the recycled material market. Since many parts of the United States relied heavily on exporting recyclables to be processed, infrastructure investments were not made. Until the infrastructure is updated, some of which is outdated by more than half a century, the American people should not expect dramatic changes to the tons of recyclable materials sent to incinerators or landfills compared to 2017 levels.

“The positive emotions associated with recycling can overpower the negative emotions associated with wasting”

— Monic Sun and Remi Trudel, professors at Boston University.

Contamination is a significant problem with commingle recycling.

Commingle recycling, where all recyclables are placed into the same bin, has made recycling easier for consumers but results in one-quarter to one-half of the materials being contaminated. Contamination is the mixing of different types of material, wishcycling, food residue, tanglers, and plastic film, which can result in the recycling being rejected or downgraded. Additional examples of contamination include plastic straws and bags, eating utensils, clamshell containers, small containers, TetraPak cartons, cords, metal lids, and scrap metal-these cannot be recycled because they cannot be sorted out from other materials that they mix with in commingle bins, and are often a contaminate in other machine sorted material streams.

In many cases, when contamination occurs, your items will end up at a landfill instead of being recycled. This can be especially true if your city does not have an effective sorting process in place, immediately bales all commingle recyclables for the market, or does not have access to a profitable or inexpensive market for their materials (such as plastic). Take for instance, Oregon; between 2017 and 2019, Oregon sent 16,425 tons of recyclables to the landfill (referred to as concurrences by Oregon DEQ).

All of the images of commingle recycling bins were taken on July 14, 2022. Photos are of various residential curbside recycling bins in Eugene, Oregon or at one of the three Lane County Waste Management Transfer Stations along the I-5 corridor.

Once collected, materials are often compressed into one-ton bricks for easy transport, often without removing any contamination.

EcoSort is a construction material recovery facility that also bales residential curbside recycling materials for many haulers in and around Lane County, Oregon.

Once collected, materials are often compressed into one-ton bricks for easy transport, often without removing any contamination; this reduces the need to pre-sort materials, making it easier for manufacturers, suppliers, consumers, and waste municipalities. It's also more cost-efficient; therefore, you are more likely to see commingle recycling bins in your local community.

With all of this in mind, here are some questions you should ask yourself when it comes to commingled recycling:

● What happens to commingle recyclables in your community?

● Do options exist locally for residents who want to separate their recyclables? If so, what types of opportunities are provided? For example: do they offer curbside pickup services that include a separate bin for each material type? Are there drop-off locations where all items are sorted before being processed? Are there drop-off materials-specific collection bins locally? For example, many stores offer plastic film collection, and others may provide collection bins to recycle PakTech handles.

● What kind of program works best for my household? Are there specific conditions—like space limitations—that make one option more feasible than another?

● How can I advocate for better commingle recycling standards in my community or with my hauler?

Once compressed the commingle materials are auctioned off and then hauled to a material recovery sorting facility.

Once compressed the materials are auctioned off and then hauled to a material recovery facility for sorting, often by machines that use infrared lasers to identify material composition. From there, the different materials are sent to a wash line, if available, to the material recovery facility (Primarily plastics and Glass). It’s at this point that the re-manufacturable materials are processed accordingly:

● Plastic is recycled into new plastic nurdles before being made into products, such as fleece jackets, plastic-based household/industrial products, and plastic lumber. Plastic nurdles can also be remanufactured into product packaging labeled as RPETE or RHDPE plastic resin.

● Paper is shredded and made into boxboard for shipping containers, corrugated cardboard boxes, product packaging, printer paper, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, and newspaper.

● Metals are melted down and reformed into other metals or alloys that can be used in manufacturing new products and product packaging

● Glass is melted down at a glass foundry and remade into various items, including new glass bottles for beverages.

Commingle Recycling can be a detriment to the planet

If people believe they can buy everything from disposable coffee capsules to takeout food in disposable containers or even new cars, with the expectation that all waste associated with the purchase can simply go into a recycling bin, there will be no conscious effort to reduce consumption– a more important aspect of waste prevention compared to recycling alone. Furthermore, Flore Berlingen, Zero Waste France’s Executive Director, sums up, “The message about recycling is so positive that it becomes an incentive to consider that recyclable waste is not really waste.”

Commingle Recycling is an industry created primarily by manufacturers to address backlash from environmental activists in the 1970s who were concerned about disposable culture and the impact of plastic and other types of packaging on the planet. It does not promote consumer responsibility. In reality, it can allow consumers to feel like they’re doing their part for the environment while contributing to more waste than necessary.

Many cities require residents to use separate bins for paper, plastic, and metal — but some cities are encouraging residents to combine these things into one bin because it makes recycling easier for haulers who collect curbside trash and recycling every week. As you have discovered, the one bin recycling system does not necessarily guarantee that the materials collected are genuinely recycled. With the number of recyclables being diverted to landfills or incinerators, an intelligent person would question why we continue with this status quo and may even question if their efforts are making a difference. Thankfully, every time you open your recycling bin and recycle right, your efforts and actions create a huge difference in ensuring that your community’s recycling is fully remanufactured.

Final Thoughts

You might be asking, “Why do we have commingled recycling?” It seems like a poor idea, right? We all hate to see recyclables going into the trash while they could be diverted into the recycling stream. However, there are many problems with the commingle recycling practice that makes it a less-than-ideal solution to our recycling woes. The reality is that commingle recycling has little impact on reducing contamination levels due to its inherent nature as a mixed material stream. Furthermore, because of its lack of separation between material types at collection sites and facilities where materials are baled together before being sorted by material type, commingled recyclables can end up being discarded entirely due to high levels of contamination within their loads or sent to incinerators as waste-to-energy may be a cheaper alternative to sending the commingle materials to market. Until investments are made nationally and locally, commingle recycling will continue to have anticipated and unforeseen consequences for the planet and our health.


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