In the U.S., recycling programs have had less than stellar results. Our intentions are good as we carefully separate plastics, aluminum, paper, and glass into the recycling bin, feeling like good save-the-earth citizens. What experts call “single-stream recycling” is certainly convenient and been embraced by much of the country.

But, alas, it’s a flawed system. A single-use plastic grocery bag can ruin an entire load of recyclable plastics. A dirty diaper, metal can with food waste in it, water bottle that bursts open to dispel its contents all have the same result.

Adding to the cross-contamination problem is that when everything recyclable is in the same bag and truck it gets crushed together, also making it difficult for recycling center sensors to tell a flattened can from a magazine.

Then there’s the issue of “aspirational recycling” which is when you have an item you believe – hope? – is recyclable when it isn’t. The New York Times even published a list of these types of non-recyclables ranging from pizza boxes to take-out food containers.

The problem intensified last year when China announced it would no longer accept “foreign garbage”, leaving many U.S. municipalities at a loss, which turned out to be local landfills’ gain.

There’s no simple solution. But there are alternative solutions. Although there are success stories such as those in Australia and New Zealand, Sweden is viewed as the poster child of ultimate recycling. Here is a country so good at recycling, that it’s actually run out of garbage (which it then imported to keep its recycling centers open).

In Sweden, only 1% of its waste winds up in the landfill. With the goal of becoming a zero-waste society, the country has also adopted a “waste to energy” system where garbage is burned to generate steam that is then turned into energy to heat homes and run busses. The government encourages sustainability, reduction, repair and reuse.

As for the six degrees of separation, recyclables are sorted into color-coded categories including metal, paper, e-waste, plastic and glass. The last category is waste of two types, food (this is where you put the (Kevin) Bacon) and other waste such as vacuum cleaner bags, kitty litter, clothing and shoes.

Dividing waste into six or sometimes seven or more categories is far more time and space-consuming than single-stream recycling. But the difference in results – no more cross-contamination, near-zero waste, turning waste into energy – far surpasses any inconvenience.

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Published by
Steven J. Schleider, MAI, LEED-AP BD+C
President, Metropolitan Valuation Services