Single Stream Recycling

Common Science PNG Logo


Long time readers may be aware that my father, Ron Danner, is an emeritus professor of Chemical Engineering at Penn State University. This is the second of two columns that we are co-authoring, both of which are pertinent to issues right here in the Southern Part of Heaven. Last week we addressed the choice between paper and plastic bags. This week we provide a review of single-stream recycling.

Aside from being environmentally conscious, municipalities have financial incentives to implement recycling programs. Glass, paper and plastic that residents throw in the garbage must be landfilled. If they are recycled, they can be sold. The three most common approaches to recycling are listed below.

  • Single-stream: Put all recyclables into one bin.
  • Dual-stream: Put paper products in one bin and all other recyclables in another.
  • Source-separated: Divide recycling into many different bins based on material type such as paper, aluminum, clear glass, and brown glass.

In order to select from among these options, a municipality needs to consider all of the steps in the recycling process.

  • The first step involves considering what behaviors can be expected from residents. As you require more separation at the home level, you need more recycling-focused residents. As the amount of separation required is reduced, residents tend to increase the amount of material that they recycle, which in turn reduces the amount that goes to the landfill.
  • The next step involves the collection of materials. The trucks that collect recycled materials must have the same number of compartments as the number of distinct bins at the residence. Multi-compartment trucks are more expensive than the single compartment trucks that can be used in a single-stream recycling approach.
  • The third step is the separation of the materials at the recycling facility but automated machinery. The goal of the recycling facility is to separate everything back out into distinct categories. This task is obviously easier to accomplish if the resident performs more separation.
  • The final step is the disposition of the separated materials. Here, economics plays an important role. The amount paid for a ton of recycled material depends upon the quality of the product. The higher the level of contamination – paper mixed in with glass, or type 1 plastic mixed in with type 2 plastic – the lower the price.

A single-stream recycling facility is essentially a series of conveyor belts. Here is a typical setup.

single stream recycling pic 1

Materials from the trucks are dumped on to the first belt and workers extract the materials that are not acceptable, such as batteries or fluorescent light bulbs, by hand. This belt leads to a separator system that drops out the heavier materials such as cans and bottles and leaves the paper, cardboard, boxes, and the like. Each of these streams are directed to further conveyer belts which separate materials using puffs of air to knock off lighter materials such as plastic bottles and magnets to separate metals. Optical sorting technologies are used to identify different plastics and separate them again using puffs of air. The sorting equipment looks like this.  Two of the biggest problems in the overall process are plastic bags, which tend to wrap around the equipment, and glass, which tends to break and contaminate the final products. Therefore, if you ask residents to perform more sorting at home, the products from your recycling plant will be more uniform and fetch a higher price. Unfortunately, if you take this route, residents will recycle less material reducing the volume of material that you can sell and consequently filling up your landfill faster.

Orange County, North Carolina switched from dual to single stream recycling in 2014. In the first year of the program, the volume of recycled material grew by an impressive 16%. This improvement is part of a long-term trend. In 1991-1992, Orange County landfilled 1.36 tons of waste per person per year. This value has now dropped to 0.49 tons, a decrease of 64%. While this is an impressive improvement, we still landfill approximately twice the amount of the average person in the European Union.

In order for Orange County to catch up with the French, the Danes, and the Czechs, we need to maximize the amount of material we recycle while not putting inappropriate material in the bin. Follow this link to the list from Orange County Solid Waste for an explanation of what can and cannot be recycled. Post the recycle guidelines near your recycle bin and check before you throw!

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to Think that this column includes important points that others should consider? Share this column on Facebook or Twitter. Want more Common Science? Follow me on Twitter on @Commonscience.

CHTC Approves Single Fee For Recycling, Waste Services

The Chapel Hill Town Council approved a county-wide single fee to fund recycling and waste services, at Monday’s meeting.

The council voted 6-1, with Jim Ward voting against the resolution authorizing Orange County to charge property owners a single fee of $103 a year.*

“I think it’s a disservice to the people we are elected to represent to voluntarily pay . . . a significant amount of money more than the cost of the service that’s provided,” said Ward.

In late March, the council discussed two funding options with legislative boards from Carrboro, Hillsborough and the county.

At this assembly of governments meeting, CHTC members argued for a split fee of $94 per urban property per year and $118 per rural property per year.* They said the county’s waste convenience centers would be mostly used by rural residents so Chapel Hill taxpayers should pay a lower fee.

Officials from the other three boards argued for the single fee option.

Words between Ward and other council members became tense at Monday’s meeting. Here’s an excerpt, edited down for clarity.

Ed Harrison: “My neighbors and I can swallow three cents per day for people in Orange County.”

Jim Ward: “Ed, I’m sorry you used the analogy of three cents a day. To me that’s a smokescreen that obfuscates the reality of what you – it sounds like – and others are going to be willing to ask of the Chapel Hill taxpayers to pay: $100,000 – $200,000 more than the services that they’re getting.”

Maria Palmer: “Using words like smokescreen and things like that . . . If somebody chooses to say it’s three cents a day, and you choose to say $100,000, we could accuse you of making it sound enormous for purposes of scaring people. Nobody’s going to pay $100,000.”

Before this town council meeting, the Solid Waste Advisory Group, which includes members from each government board, approved the single fee funding. But the town council had to authorize the fee before the county got the authority to charge the fee.

On Monday, CHTC members, apart from Ward, said they did not want to stand in the way of moving forward. This funding will increase recycling in the county, they said, and there are more important battles to fight.

*The exact dollar amounts could change since projections are based on the fiscal year 2014/15 budget.

Blue Recycling Roll Carts Set To Roll Out In Orange County

The Orange County Board of Commissioners last week approved the purchase of 7,600 recycling roll carts at a cost of $444,144. Chapel Hill and Carrboro received 90 gallon carts to replace the smaller bins earlier this year.

“I’m very supportive of this and I think that the people in the county, the 7,000 people that want their roll-out carts are going to be thrilled,” said Commissioner Penny Rich.

The county’s rural recycling program serves only a fraction of the residents of unincorporated Orange, about 13,700 households. Others take their trash and recycling to one of the five solid waste convenience centers around the county.

When commissioners first debated purchasing the roll carts for county residents, some residents objected, saying their long driveways and lack of curbs made the carts hard to use.

Gayle Wilson, director of Orange County Solid Waste, told the board slightly more than half of the current customers requested roll carts. He asked the board to authorize the purchase of additional carts in case others changed their minds.

“It is expected that once we start distributing the carts, people will decide that they do want a cart rather than continue to use their bins, or they may have not responded previously and saw a nice, shiny new bin at their neighbors and they call up and they want one,” said Wilson.

Commissioners approved it by a 6-1 vote with Chair Earl McKee opposing. While the purchase had broad support on the board, some, including Commissioner Barry Jacobs, worried it might be short-sighted, coming at time when the towns and county are working on a long-term plan for solid waste.

“Considering that the Solid Waste Advisory Group is looking at the methods for funding curbside or roadside pickup, is this not putting the carts before the horse?”

Jacobs serves on the Solid Waste Advisory Group (SWAG), an intergovernmental work group tasked with identifying a county-wide solution to handle trash and recycling as well as a means to fund it. He and fellow SWAG member Rich told board members the work group will present a slate of proposals for funding recycling pick-up in the spring of 2015.

In the meantime, the new blue carts will roll out in January to 7,000 Orange county residents.

County Commissioners Reverse Course On Rural Recycling Vote

County Commissioners did an abrupt about-face Thursday night, reversing a vote on rural recycling funding in response to criticism from the Chapel Hill Town Council.

“The message that we need to send to the towns tonight is that, in fact, we do want to be their partners, we do want to work with them,” said Commissioner Alice Gordon.

On Tuesday, the board voted to spend $728,000 from the solid waste reserve fund to pay for rural recycling pick-up for the next fiscal year.

But on Wednesday, Chapel Hill Town Council members argued the majority of the money in the solid waste reserve fund was contributed by the towns, making it unfair to subsidize recycling pick-up for county residents while asking the towns to levy a $59 dollar fee on urban households for the same service.

In a rare move, the board revisited the issue at a work session Thursday and voted unanimously to fund both rural and urban programs from the solid waste fund, a move that will cost the county more than $2 million.

The solid waste reserve fund is set aside to pay for post-closure costs at the Orange County Landfill. The county is legally responsible for the site for the next three decades.

Commissioner Penny Rich said she’d like to see the towns find a way to help replenish that fund now that the county is no longer collecting landfill tipping fees.

“If we are going to take the $2 million dollars out of the reserves, we include the towns in the conversation about how we can build that back up, because right now we don’t have a way of doing that,” said Rich.

To figure out a funding plan for the future and solve ongoing questions about how to deal with solid waste and recycling, the board voted Tuesday to create a multi-jurisdictional task force chaired by a County Commissioner.

The board will appoint its representatives to the Solid Waste Advisory Group on June 17.

Chapel Hill Balks At BoCC Funding Plan For Recycling Pick-Up

At a budget work session on Wednesday, Chapel Hill Town Council members sounded off about a vote the night before by Orange County Commissioners to fund rural curbside recycling out of reserve funds, while asking the towns to levy a $59 per household fee for the same service.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the move jeopardizes future collaboration with the county on solid waste and recycling.

“You know, we made a decision two or three months ago that we were all in it together,” said Kleinschmidt. “I think we did that with the hope that, by this point, we were actually going to be in lockstep, that we were going to have a county-wide plan to move forward. But we don’t.”

Council members argued the majority of the money in the solid waste reserve fund was contributed by the towns, making it particularly unfair to subsidize recycling pick-up for county residents while charging urban households.

In light of Tuesday’s vote, some Council members said they won’t agree to levy the town recycling fee when the budget comes up for approval next week.

Instead, the Council is asking Commissioners to consider funding both rural and urban recycling pick-up for next year from the solid waste reserve fund.

While this would drop the county’s $3 million dollar post- closure landfill contingency fund down to $1 million, Town Manager Roger Stancil told the Council that’s not their problem.

“At this point it’s totally the county’s issue,” said Stancil. “So they would have to find a way to pay for that liability.”

Chapel Hill officials last year investigated the costs of hiring private contractors to handle trash and recycling pick-up, but Council members agreed to try to maintain a fifteen-year partnership with the county in hopes of furthering the community’s solid waste reduction goals.

Town and county officials were drafting an interlocal agreement to spell out how that might work, but Stancil told the Council that process ground to a halt recently, as county leaders threw their support behind a task force instead.

Commissioners voted to create that task force on Tuesday, stipulating that a Commissioner would act as chair and inviting Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and UNC to participate, along with five residents.

Council member Jim Ward has worked with Orange County on solid waste issues in the past, but this time, he called the process flawed.

“This committee that I’m just hearing about, we had no input on that. This is totally unacceptable to me, the process and the outcome,” said Ward. “The outcome isn’t any surprise because of the process that they’re using.”

In response to lobbying from town leaders, County Commissioners will reopen the issue at Thursday’s work session, and likely vote on a new funding plan.

BoCC Looks To Task Force For Solid Waste And Recycling Solutions

HILLSBOROUGH- After months of debate, Orange County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve spending $728,000 from the solid waste reserve fund to pay for rural curbside recycling pick-up for one year.

While board members agreed it was preferable to raising the property tax rate to cover the cost of the program next year, some, including Mark Dorosin, argued it might be time to reconsider the county’s reliance on fees.

“I’m happy to support [this] option tonight, but I think it’s a very, very, bad, dangerous precedent to start talking about funding services based on who uses them,” said Dorosin. “Once you start talking about everything is a fee for services, you really undermine the idea of a community.”

The county was forced to find a new funding model after a court ruling called into question the county’s ability to levy the fee that supported the program. The board scrapped two alternate funding models in April before opting for Tuesday’s stopgap measure.

Town and county officials are moving towards an interlocal agreement on solid waste, but no agreement has yet been reached on how to equitably fund the recycling program, how the governments should share any future facilities like a waste transfer station, or where such a facility might go.

In an effort to tackle those questions, Commissioners voted 5-2 to create a Solid Waste Advisory Group of residents and elected officials to sort out short and long-term goals for cooperation. Commissioner Penny Rich was one of those who favored a wide scope for the task force.

“This is not a group just to find out what we’re doing with recycling, this group is to really explore what we’re going to do,” said Rich. “I mean, we need a solid waste plan, we need to make that we move into the future and not have this discussion every single year.”

The board will appoint Commissioners on June 17 and solicit representation from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and UNC as well as five members of the public. Commissioners hope to receive a report from the newly-formed task force at next fall’s Assembly of Governments. In the meantime, the board will review a draft interlocal agreement on June 17.

BoCC Faces “Basket Of Bad Options” To Fund Rural Curbside Recycling Program

After deciding last month not to decide on a long-term option for funding rural curbside recycling pick-up, Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday wrangled with the question of how to keep the program going in the short term.

“We have to choose from a basket of bad options, and whether we choose the worst bad option or a little bit better bad option, we’re going to choose a bad option for this next year,” said Vice-Chair Earl McKee.

The board on April 15 did not opt for either a solid waste service district tax or a subscription service to pay for recycling pick-up for 13,700 homes in unincorporated Orange County.

Now, Commissioners are considering how to come up with $630,000 to fund the service for the next year. Possible options include drawing from the solid waste reserve fund, raising the property tax rate, or increasing household fees to cover the full operating costs of the solid waste convenience centers, which would then free up other funding for recycling pick-up.

Although the County Manager recommended using reserve funds, some on the board, including Bernadette Pelissier, worried town residents would be unfairly subsidizing rural services.

“Actually, the towns would be paying three times,” said Pelissier. “They’re paying from reserves, they’re paying from the general fund for the convenience centers, and then they’re paying the recycling fee in the town.”

But Interim County Manager Michael Talbert said at this point, there are no ideal solutions.

“Just to be clear, we know it is not equitable. None of the options are equitable,” said Talbert. “I don’t know how to say it any other way, none of them are equitable. They all benefit one portion of the population more than the other.”

The board will likely pick from a menu of options at a meeting on June 3. Also on June 3, commissioners will revisit a draft of a preliminary interlocal agreement between the towns and county to govern how solid waste and recycling will be handled in the future.

It Is Time For A Pay-As-You-Throw Trash Plan?

With town and county officials looking to collaborate on solid waste disposal and recycling, there’s increasing interest in changing the way individuals and institutions handle trash in Orange County.

County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier says it’s time to seriously consider a pay-as-you-throw system that charges households based on how much waste each generates.

“We know, from a psychological point of view, that paying for something makes people think about it,” says Pelissier. “Just like we got increased water conservation by having the tiered rates. People are now conscious that it’s a precious resource. What we have in our trash cans or recycling bins, that’s a precious resource as well, so we have to frame it very differently.”

Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade agrees. He says Carrboro is already investigating the feasibility of such a system, with an eye to rewarding residents who reduce their trash output.

“Personally, I’m interested in not just an individual, per-household pay-as-you-throw system- there’s some concern in the Town of Carrboro about the regressive quality of that,” says Slade. “There’s an opportunity, I feel, at the neighborhood level to incentivize the neighborhood to reduce its trash, then credit the neighborhood for it to use through participatory budgeting at the neighborhood scale.”

Though critics of pay-as-you-throw argue it can disproportionally impact low-income households, Orange County Solid Waste Planner Blair Pollock says some elderly residents might actually benefit from the change.

“The predominant low-income family in our county is elderly and lives alone or has a small household,” says Pollock. “So people, like my mom, who live in this county benefit from pay-as-you throw. One could easily flip that argument on its head.”

Switching to a pay-as-you-throw system is part of a larger question of how the local governments can handle solid waste in a socially and environmentally just manner.

Now that the Eubanks Road landfill has closed, the towns and county are trucking trash to a waste transfer station in Durham. That trash ultimately ends up at a landfill in Sampson County.

Board of Commissioners candidate Mark Marcoplos visited the landfill to see firsthand the impact that has on the surrounding neighborhood. He says the largely low-income African-American community is suffering from the burden of Orange County’s trash.

“We’re in this situation where we’re patting ourselves on the back for finally providing social justice to the Rogers Road community and we’re actually affecting a community even worse over the horizon in Sampson County, so this is an issue we have to address,” says Marcoplos.

While some are pushing for the construction of a waste transfer station near Chapel Hill, Town Council member Jim Ward says ultimately, local governments will need to find a more permanent solution.

“I do think that if we go forward and see the need for a landfill, and I think there is one, I think it’s incumbent on us to put it in our own backyard and not be oblivious to it being transported to some impoverished neighborhood in Eastern North Carolina or Southern Virginia or wherever this stuff goes,” says Ward.

Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee says all stakeholders need to get together to come up with short and long-term solutions.

“I think that we’re going to need to look at this entire discussion of what we’re going to do with our trash, how we’re going to handle recycling, and we need to look at it in a comprehensive manner along with the towns.”

But once local governments work out a plan, McKee says they’ll need the political will to stick to it.

“I think its finally going to break down to having to devise a plan, then have the backbone to stand by that plan and put it into effect.”

The towns and county are in the process of hashing out a new interlocal agreement on solid waste. County commissioners will get their first look at the draft agreement on May 13.

Pelissier, Slade, Pollock, Ward, Marcoplos and McKee made those comments during the “Environment” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum. You can listen to the full forum here.

Costs Up, Partnerships Down, But “People Want To Live Here”

Affordability, taxes, housing, solid waste, economic development, and the future of Carolina North and Rogers Road: all longstanding hot-button issues in Orange County, and all requiring strong partnerships between the local municipalities as well as UNC.

Orange County leaders say the time is now to make those partnerships stronger.

“One of our major issues is to renew the strength and vitality of our partnerships with the municipalities,” says Barry Jacobs, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. “I think we’ve lost touch to some degree.”

At the center of the conversation is the eternal question of affordability: how to manage the cost of living while preserving a desirable community, in a space with little room to grow.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt says that’s often an issue in college towns – and it’s certainly the case in Chapel Hill.

“University towns are very, very highly sought after,” she says. “I try every day to recruit faculty and staff and students…of course they’re concerned about price of living, (but) mostly we hear that people want to live here. So I think we are still on the positive side of this equation: this is a very high-choice place.”

But with that desirability comes a number of challenges – including, perhaps most notably, the cost of housing. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says those costs are worth it: “I sometimes look around (my house) and think, wow, for this price I could be in a much bigger place in Durham,” he says, “but I’d rather be in Chapel Hill.”

And while higher property values still mean Chapel Hillians are paying more dollars in taxes, Kleinschmidt notes that Chapel Hill’s property tax rate is actually lower than many of our neighboring communities.

Still, the cost of housing is a strain, one that makes it difficult – if not impossible – for many people to live in Chapel Hill. And not only Chapel Hill: Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens says the affordability question is affecting his community as well.

“We’re seeing rising costs (too),” he says. “It’s a little bit less expensive to live here, so we’re finding families move out (of Chapel Hill-Carrboro) and folks wanting to be in Hillsborough – (but) as prices go up, we’re finding a lot of our families are moving to Mebane.”

The housing crunch has driven local leaders to explore creative policies for developing more affordable housing in all of Orange County’s municipalities.

But as Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle points out, housing is not the only factor driving the cost of living.

“We’ve studied extensively the interplay between transportation costs and affordable housing,” she says. “A typical income earner spends anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of their income on transportation – owning a car, taxes, insurance, and so forth.”

That, she says, gives local leaders a strong incentive to develop housing downtown – so residents don’t need vehicles to get to and from work. Kleinschmidt adds that he’s equally proud of Chapel Hill’s fare-free bus system, which also keeps the cost of living down.

Taxes too are a primary concern – and local leaders are quick to point out that they’ve managed to maintain services while avoiding tax increases, even through the long recession. (Lavelle says she expects Carrboro to maintain that streak this year too.) But Barry Jacobs says that, at the end of the day, it’s just as important to preserve the services that make Orange County a desirable place to live.

And the most important of those services, he says, is education.

“We’re proud of public education (and) we’re going to fund it to the best of our ability,” he says. “Going through the recession, and then having a state legislature that’s attacking public education, we have actually raised the per-pupil funding…and in the last 20 years we’ve built 14 schools in this county. And three of them were high schools. Those are expensive suckers…

“And that’s part of what makes this an attractive community. That’s what draws people here. It’s a double-edged sword, to use a cliché.”

But Jacobs adds that the need for education spending must be weighed against the concern for affordability – particularly the fact that many Orange County residents are seniors on fixed incomes.

And so the question returns to partnerships: town, county, and UNC officials working together to promote efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve the standard of living. Local leaders agree that’s already happening (if slowly) on the issue of Rogers Road remediation, and Chapel Hill Mayor Kleinschmidt says he’s confident it will also happen on the issue of solid waste: “I think we’re going to come together with a solution,” he says, “(and in) four, five, six years, we’re going to have a site for a transfer station that we’re all going to use.” (Kleinschmidt says there are several attractive candidates for that site in the northern part of Chapel Hill, including one off Millhouse Road.)

It’s also happening on the question of economic development, where UNC is actively partnering with the towns and county on projects ranging from the LAUNCH entrepreneurial incubator to the redevelopment of 123 West Franklin, the former University Square – though Chancellor Folt says little is happening right now when it comes to Carolina North. (“We’re really not having any active plans there right now,” she says. “It’s really not at the top of the list.”)

In the end, though, while local leaders seem to agree that municipal partnerships have been stronger, there’s also a shared commitment to strengthening them in the months and years to come.

“How we should go forward is together,” says Jacobs.

Folt, Jacobs, Kleinschmidt, Lavelle, and Stevens made those comments during the “Town and Gown” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum; they were joined on the panel by outgoing UNC student body president Christy Lambden.

BoCC Bunts On Rural Recycling Pick-Up Plan

Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday backed away from a plan to create a solid waste service district tax to pay for rural recycling pick-up.

“It seems clear to me at least, that a one-size-fits-all solution is not ideal,” said Commissioner Mark Dorosin.

The board side-stepped a vote on the proposed district tax in favor of what members called a more wholistic approach.

“On the 13th we’re going to be discussing a draft inter-local agreement which would bring us back into partnership, after several years, with our municipal partners,” said Board Chair Barry Jacobs. “That’s the time to start talking about what all of our options are, how they fit together, how they would be funded, to look at new ideas.”

The district tax would have replaced a fee the county attorney told the board it no longer has authority to levy. The rural curb-side recycling program currently serves about 13,700 homes, but funding runs out in July.

Residents of suburban areas outside Chapel Hill and Carrboro supported the district plan as a way to continue curb-side pick up. But rural residents protested, saying the service is not suited to areas with long driveways and no curbs.

Despite two crowded public hearings and a slew of emails, board members could not agree on the level of public support for the plan.

“I have to say that most of the emails I received were in favor of the tax,” said Penny Rich. “Most of the emails I received are people that wanted to take advantage and continue using the recycling.”

“I must be on a different email list, because the emails I received ran two to one against the tax,” Earl McKee replied.

Unlike the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Orange County does not currently host a public email archive online. However, Jacobs proposed posting all emails related to the solid waste service district tax plan on the county website for readers to draw their own conclusions.

Only one member of the public spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. Bonnie Hauser, who is challenging Jacobs for his at-large seat on the board, called for the creation of a work group of citizens and elected officials to sort through solid waste issues.

“Please consider finding a simple way to fund rural curbside recycling for the short-term, possibly using reserves or the General Fund,” said Hauser. “Second, start a work group with professionals and citizens from the towns and county to work together over the next year or so to explore services, costs and fees for trash and recycling services.”

Though no board member called for a vote on either the district tax plan or its alternative, an opt-in subscription service, some, including Bernadette Pelissier, expressed frustration that the matter remains unresolved.

“While I understand that many of my colleagues want to have further conversations, and there may be fruitfulness to it, we are going to have an inequitable situation that’s going to be aggravated by not making any decision about some way to do this,” said Pelissier.

County leaders must still decide how to fund the program for at least the next year, and whether to move ahead with the purchase of roll carts.

The board will discuss the future of solid waste disposal, potential partnerships with the towns and the question of rural recycling in particular, at meetings scheduled for May 8 and 13.