Tag Archives: single stream is a lie

Is Recycling a Right?

I was ready. After months of planning I had finally worked up the courage to cancel my curbside garbage service.

And then all my careful plans got sideswiped.

Olympic-level recyclable sorting

Now I know cancelling my garbage service may not sound like such a big deal, but it was something looming large in my consciousness; after a whole year of thinking about it, I was going to finally MAKE RECYCLING MAKE SENSE. I had it all figured out: by cancelling my garbage service, I would save over $60 per month, or $720 per year. We could take our ordinary recycling, (glass, cardboard, plastics #1 and 2) to the local transfer station, which would recycle it for free. Meanwhile, we’d put difficult-to-recycle plastics (#3-7) in the Terracycle box, which is expensive, but whose cost was now covered by that lovely $720 we were now saving. Perfect! No more fake recycling that quietly dumped our plastics in landfills and impoverished countries; instead everything would go to the best possible place for it to go.

And we could remain a Garbage Free/Zero Waste house.

But fear of change is a powerful de-motivator—I kept finding reasons to put off cancelling our service. I finally got around to calling at the end of January and when I hung up the phone it felt pretty momentous. We were on our own. My husband Steve built me a neat little sorting center in the basement and we began making a regular pilgrimage to the dump. It took more time and effort, but I actually enjoyed the chore of sorting because I felt like I had found a way to make a difference.

Before: When everything was sorted, and they only took what was actually recyclable

Aaaaaaand then it all came crashing to a halt. As we drove up on our most recent trip to the transfer station, Steve and I were confused: why did it suddenly look so… different? As we drove closer we saw that instead of many different bin categories there was now one giant bin with all arrows pointing directly to it. ALL RECYCLING the signs said.

Oh shit, I thought. Single stream.

Now- Single Stream

I got out and spoke to the man in attendance and he explained: the facility had recently been purchased by a large garbage service company out of Albany.

My heart sank. It was exactly the company I had cancelled our curbside pick up from.

But it was worse than just the lie of single stream. Because the signs also indicated that recycling was no longer free.

Stymied, we left and took our carload of carefully sorted recycling with us. The whole way home I was silent.


When I stopped being silent, I was incredulous. By law Vermont requires all residents to recycle. Didn’t my town have to provide recycling services? Wasn’t recycling supposed to be free?

So I started making phone calls. I ended up talking to a lovely woman named Pam Clapp who is the administrator for our county’s Solid Waste Alliance.

“It’s kind of a misnomer that recycling is free,” Clapp told me. “It’s not free.” Although the state of Vermont does prohibit companies from charging for recycling, most pick-up services get around this by having “handling fees” for single stream recycling, bundling it with garbage removal.

And even the ban against charging for recycling may soon be lifted, Clapp told me, because keeping recycling streams properly sorted and “clean” is so labor intensive (read: expensive) due to well-meaning “wishful recyclers,” as well as the possibly-less-well-meaning people who throw things like used diapers and dead deer carcasses in with recyclable materials.

“You’re kidding.” I said. “People do that?”

“Oh yes.” she said.

All I knew was that it seemed I was back to square one. Steve was justifiably tired of playing this game of garbage musical chairs and suggested we consider returning to our old curbside service, since it was all the same company anyway. But I knew that would leave no money for buying Terracycle boxes, so we’d no longer be Garbage Free/Zero Waste. Plus it just felt like going backwards.

Let it never be said that I am not ridiculously stubborn.

After some thought I formulated a new, modified plan: we would use the single stream at the transfer station, only putting in those items which I know are likely to get recycled. At $2.25 per trip, even if we go every week the fee to recycle is only $9 per month or $108 per year… still way better than having curbside service, and it still leaves me with $612 to spend on Terracycle boxes.

It’s funny though. Everyone I talk to about Terracycle invariably cites how very expensive the service is, but no one talks to me about how expensive curbside garbage service is. I have a theory about this. I think it’s not really the expense of Terracycle that is stopping people, since the numbers tell us that the money is essentially the same. Rather, much of it goes back to those same reasons it took me so long to cancel my garbage service in the first place: fear of change. Taking the time to figure it out and create a new habit. More fear.

But we can’t be afraid to change if we want to fix what we’ve been breaking. And we can’t excuse our inaction by saying we don’t have perfect solutions, because change, even incremental change is what gets us heading down a better path.

So I have my new plan and it’s not perfect, but neither am I. Having access to real, effective recycling may not be a right- yet- but with a little ridiculous stubbornness I have no doubt we can get there.

Single Stream Recycling is a Lie, and Other Recycling Facts No One Wants To Tell You

It’s taken me months to get to the bottom of these Recycling Mysteries, and some of them are pretty shocking, so let’s get right to it:

  • The only plastic numbers that actually get recycled are Numbers 1 and 2, and possibly 5.

This is because 1 and 2 are the only varieties of plastic for which there is an actual market/ monetary value. Regardless of what your service provider is telling you, numbers 3, 4, 6 and 7 are not getting recycled. They are getting shipped to some unfortunate country to junk up their environment.

  • Plastics with no numbers don’t get recycled.

They end up in either the landfill or the incinerator. One form of “wishful recycling” I’ve heard a lot is “but it’s rigid plastic! That’s always recyclable, right?” The sad answer is: nope.

  • All screw-off caps should be removed.

 They make the containers difficult to crush and cause them to pop out of the machines. Anything that pops out of the machines is probably going to get trashed.

  • Anything smaller than 2 inches doesn’t get recycled.

These items are too small to go through the recycling machines, and will end up on the processing facility floor. Anything that ends up on the floor is probably going to get trashed.

  • Plastic films must have all labels and stickers removed before they can be recycled in the plastic film bin at the supermarket.

If you can’t pull stickers and labels off they must be cut out, or the glue on the sticker will contaminate the recycling and mess it up. Then the whole batch gets trashed. The sticker is not recyclable.

  • “Compostables” are pretty much a total lie.

They are not compostable, (at least not in the backyard compost sense,) not recyclable, (#7 gets trashed,) and do not degrade in a landfill.


At long last: ACTUAL FACTS. Depressing facts, but still.

If you are a person who pays any attention to the issue of recycling, you’ve likely been frustrated by how elusive basic principles of recycling can be.

You’ve heard “When in doubt, throw it out!” or “just ask your garbage/recycling service provider!” But these are not “recycling principles;” these are cop-outs. Real answers, like the ones above, are slipperier than an eel at a banana factory.

But why?

Because the system is much worse than just confusing. The system is broken. And worse than that, it’s dangerous: to us and to our planet.

Much of current, single stream recycling is, in fact, a lie, at least when it comes to plastic. The seas are filling up with plastic. Humans are drinking water and eating food contaminated by micro-plastics. The environment and our bodies alike are suffering the results of this onslaught of a material that never degrades, never goes away. Did you know they are finding micro-plastics in human poop now? We’ve all become walking micro-processing plants of trash.

As any environmental expert will tell you, the plastic recycling problem all comes down to who pays. Even when you’re talking about the plastics #1 and 2, China stopped accepting our plastic waste in 2018, leaving our cities and counties to make the choice between paying to landfill or burn it, paying to send this stuff away and make it some poorer country’s problem, or paying to recycle it (the most expensive option).

Sure, we as consumers can pay: we can contact Terracycle and go through a somewhat elaborate process to pay them to recycle, if we can afford that luxury. But in either of these two scenarios, the taxpayer is ultimately footing the bill for the packaging a large company is dumping on us.

It’s like we’re paying for our products twice.

When I look at the facts above, I have to wonder why companies are allowed to produce literally thousands of different varieties of plastics, with no responsibility for where they end up. I have to wonder why it is such a hush-hush secret that out of seven plastic categories, only two are legitimately getting recycled- sometimes.

Final Thought: What is the responsibility of the companies who are making this stuff?