Single-Stream Recycling in Boulder County
Boulder County recycling bins have evolved for the 21st century. Instead of diligently separating recyclables into two “streams” — mixed paper (newspaper, junk mail, etc.) and commingled containers (bottles, cans, etc.) — recyclers whose materials go to the Boulder County Recycling Center are now able to put these two streams together in one bin.
The new program is called “single-stream” recycling. It’s the future for responsible resource conservation and an important step toward meeting our goal of building a Zero Waste community by 2020. Single-stream recycling makes it almost as easy to use the recycling bin as it is to use the trash can, so for the previously unconverted, there’s no excuse for not recycling. It also creates a significant opportunity for communities to get a lot closer to their Zero Waste goals through a revolutionary new system called Three Bin Collection. With all your recyclables collected in one can, communities and recycling haulers can plan to use the second can for compostable materials like food scraps and yard waste, making it possible for you to recover up to 80% of your discards. That leaves little need for that third can, the trash.
Single-stream is new, it’s different from how we’ve collected recyclables in the county for the past three decades, and there are a lot of questions associated with it. Use the menu below to find the answers to your questions.
These single-stream recycling guidelines are funded in part by the City of Boulder's Local Environmental Action Division (LEAD).
See what happens to your single-stream recycling when it reaches the Boulder County Recycling Center.
Learn more about single-stream recycling with our "Does It Go, in the Bin?!?!" recycling game.
Q: Let’s start with the basics — What is single-stream recycling?
A. Single-stream isn’t anything fancy. It simply refers to a new system that takes the two recycling “streams” collected through the Boulder curbside program — mixed paper and commingled containers — and puts them together in one bin. Voila. Single-stream. Two bins, now one. It is still important to follow the same guidelines applied to the two-bin program, except you put the two streams together.
Q: Why are we moving to single-stream?
A. Using just one collection bin for all your recyclable items increases the ease and convenience of recycling so that more people participate and more resources are saved. We’re making recycling easier for you — at home, at work and on the go.
Single-stream offers more efficient collections for the haulers who normally have to run two recycling routes to collect the two streams. This decreases the most costly part of recycling programs as well as the pollution from collection vehicles. And most importantly, as we mentioned, it opens a bin up for collecting compostable materials like food scraps and yard waste. Composting these materials prevents the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term. Read more about the importance of keeping organics out of landfills and how wasting impacts climate change.
Q: But I don’t mind sorting my materials. Isn’t it better for recycling if we separate them like we’ve been doing?
A. We hear you. We’ve been addicted to sorting, too. But even those of us long-term recyclers who got to participate in Boulder’s pilot single stream program in 2006 found we became hooked on the new single-stream system once we tried it. It is always good for recycling when the materials are properly sorted at “the source,” a.k.a. your home, school or office. And, sorting is still critical in that you make absolutely sure you’re recycling only the items accepted. It is also good for recycling if ever-increasing amounts of material are kept out of the landfill and sold in good clean condition to the remanufacturing companies that make new products from recycled material. Single-stream helps to increase this volume of materials.
Q: How are the materials separated?
A. The Boulder County Recycling Center has installed new sorting equipment to automatically sort many of the materials. With the new equipment, there are screens to separate “flats” (paper) from “rounds” (containers). For this reason, we ask that you do not flatten containers or the screen will sort them into the wrong bin. You can check out the new sorting equipment by watching our video or in person by taking a tour of the facility at 1901 63rd St in Boulder. Self-guided tours are available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or contact Boulder County at 720-564-2220 for a guided tour.
Q: Doesn’t this lower the value of the materials, and won’t there be a lot of contamination?
A. Not necessarily. One of the concerns associated with single-stream recycling is that one bin tends to encourage people to suddenly put EVERYTHING that seems recyclable in it. That’s why we need YOU to help demonstrate that a community full of educated, conscientious recyclers can make single-stream recycling a success. Download the latest guidelines and check out our list of worst contaminants to help us keep these problem items out.
Q: Are other communities using single-stream recycling?
A. Yes. Other communities diverting 50%, 60%, even 70% of their waste from the landfill have achieved these goals in part by switching to single-stream. Some of the communities currently using single-stream include San Francisco, Toronto, Denver, Tucson, San Jose, Philadelphia and Dallas.
Q: Won’t the paper get wet if I recycle my commingled containers with the paper? Doesn’t that make the paper non-recyclable?
A. The paper mills allow up to 5% moisture in the paper they buy from Eco-Cycle, so it’s not a problem. As always, we do ask that you empty and rinse all your containers to keep food contamination out of your bin. But moisture will not ruin the paper. Part of the recycling process for remanufacturing paper includes water, so it is not a contaminant.
Q: Are there new materials with the program?
A. Yes. Plastics recycling guidelines have also changed. In most cases, these new changes will be rolled out with the single-stream recycling program. Learn more about our new plastics recycling program for all #1 - 7 plastic bottles and tubs.
Longmont’s program was also be expanded to include corrugated cardboard, phone books and paperboard materials like cereal boxes.
Q: I participated in the city of Boulder’s pilot program where one bin was provided for single-stream and an additional bin was given to us for compostable materials like food scraps (including meat, fish, bones, dairy and fatty oils that cannot go in your typical backyard composting bin), yard waste and paper towels, tissues, etc. Are we getting that collection service again?
A. We’ve said it, but it’s so important it's worth repeating: One of the primary reasons to switch to a single-stream program is to enable a thre-bin collection program — one for recyclables, one for compostables and one for “whatever’s left” (garbage). Most communities already intending to participate in single-stream also have the intention of adding compost collection service at some point in the near future. The city of Boulder is considering adding the service at the same time single-stream begins. Unincorporated Boulder County residents will get the benefits of a “pay-as-you throw” system as well as composting at the curb at the same time single-stream is implemented. Other communities are looking at adding composting service after single-stream is running smoothly, or soon there after.