It took one year to convince officials in South Orange Village that they made the right call.

Last January the town of 18,500 did away with the weekly pick-ups of recycling where everything was dumped in one bin, instead opting for glass and aluminum to be picked up on some weeks, paper and cardboard on the others. Now, everything has to be sorted.

“There were some growing pains,” South Orange Village Mayor Sheena Collum said of the switch from single-stream to dual-stream. There were missed pick-ups, plenty of calls to the municipal building, and a new hauler getting used to routes that crisscross some 5,600 homes.

But they saved $81,000 in the first year — and recycled more than 1,252 tons of plastic, glass, cardboard and other products.

The new contract South Orange Village signed for dual stream is cheaper (despite double the amount of pick-ups) than single stream because the town gets a better deal in a market where sorting recyclables comes with savings. The town also gets back money on the paper and cardboard it successfully recycles.

Contamination can still be a problem — like someone tossing a greasy pizza box into a garbage bin or dumping plastic bags in with the recycling. But the big difference now, the town expects, is the process lends itself to organizing recycled materials and helps to avoid fees for contaminated loads.

“So far that has not happened — fingers crossed,” said Walter Clarke, Department of Public Works administrator for South Orange Village.

What the Essex County town did isn’t popular in the Garden State. Only about 27% of towns in New Jersey use a dual or multi-stream recycling method. For decades now, single-stream has been ubiquitous in New Jersey, after a push in the early 2000s to simplify things (just put it all out at once!) and boost the amount of materials potentially being recycled.

But an expert noted that China — once the top importer of our waste, especially plastic — got more strict starting in 2018 on how clean recyclables had to be. And that change redefined the industry in ways New Jersey is still feeling today.

“Experts agree that single stream recycling undeniably increased the quantity of recycled materials, but reduced the quality resulting in a contaminated supply and reduced economic viability of recycling operations,” said Serpil Guran, director of Rutgers University’s EcoComplex Clean Energy Innovation Center.

As the amount of trash in New Jersey only continues to go up, along with its population, towns continue to look for ways to better recycle and help both the environment and the health of their local budgets while they’re at it.

Many more municipalities, experts said, could — and should — follow in South Orange’s footsteps.

Somerset County dual stream

A Somerset County dual stream program fact sheet released in 2019 as part of the county recycling division’s new program.Image by Somerset County

When single stream reigned supreme

New Jersey towns are not required to implement either single stream or dual stream.

However, environmentalists prefer the latter.

Cindy Zipf, executive director of nonprofit Clean Ocean Action and chairperson of the state’s Plastics Advisory Council, said, “in short, dual stream is much better as it greatly improves the quality of recycled materials.”

A council created by Gov. Phil Murphy in 2022 to study market challenges facing the state’s recycling program advised a course correction.

“The switch to single stream recycling seemed to send a signal out to some residents that they could put anything and everything in their curbside recycling buckets,” the report read.

In many cases, that led to what they called “wishful recyclers” tossing questionable materials in the bin with the hope they were doing the right thing.

The Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center highlighted that residual rates — or the trash that shouldn’t have been included with the recycling and end up in a landfill or incinerator — are roughly 2% to 3% for dual stream and as much as 15% to 27% for single stream systems.

Recycling centers also prefer dual because it avoids mixing potential recyclables together which can mean fewer items can be sold for re-use.

“That’s a much better product for us,” said Gary Sondermeyer, vice president of operations at Bayshore Recycling, while discussing the benefits of dual stream recycling on a recent tour, “because (waste is also) not commingled with all the moisture of beer, wine, soda containers rolling onto paper and cardboard.”

Less contaminated, more marketable materials mean towns with dual stream programs can earn more revenue, according to a list of recommendations from the state report.

“While not financially or logistically feasible for all recycling programs, a return to dual stream collection from single stream collection would make sense and be beneficial for some local recycling collection programs,” the state report suggested.

South Orange Village recycling

A lonely trash bin outside of a residence in South Orange Village, NJ, in March 2024. Mayor Sheena Collum said the town saved more than $81,000 in 2023 when it switched from single stream recycling to dual stream at the start of January.Steven Rodas | NJ Advance Media for

We’re not alone

The Garden State is not alone in its reliance on single stream recycling.

Most of the U.S. still adheres to single stream programs — with one Duke University study finding the number of communities using single stream rising from 20% in 2005 to 64% in 2010. In that same period, the percentage of the population using dual stream recycling declined from 70% to 34%.

New Jerseyans — like people in other states — grew accustomed to a single stream way of life throughout the 2000s, but the paradigm shift caused by China reshaped programs nationwide.

The shockwaves of that change were readily seen when North America’s largest publicly traded hauling and materials processing companies saw revenues fall just months before China’s import restrictions kicked in.

The larger shift — and attitude change around dual vs single stream — soon after prompted California’s governor to sign a law in 2019 that encourages (but doesn’t require) towns to implement dual stream. Closer to home, Huntington, among New York’s largest towns, said that same year it was switching to dual streaming citing how “single stream recyclables have become increasingly difficult to process and market.”

Guran said while it may be a benefit to shift our ways more in New Jersey, she could just name about half a dozen towns that do dual stream recycle pick-ups today. Oakland, Hoboken, Wyckoff, Montville, Maplewood, as well as Somerset County, are among them.

Collum, the mayor in one of those towns, said South Orange Village will remain on its dual stream system through the end of 2025 and possibly beyond.

Clarke, who heads the local DPW and sustainability initiatives, said public education will continue to be important to those efforts.

“The hardest part has been educating our residents,” Clarke said, then hinting to what might be a larger problem. “But I don’t blame (people) one bit when they still get it wrong like getting the wrong week for fibers … because the rules are different half-a-mile away.”

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