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Cities adopt cheaper, simpler recycling

Single-bin system spreads to 22 states, but critics say it creates more trash.

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Say goodbye to those little recycle bins. No more banging around in the garage tying up cardboard or separating paper from cans and bottles. In the 21st century, all recyclables go into one big fat tub.

At least that's the way a growing number of US cities are recycling now - using one bin and a controversial system called "single stream" that boosts recycling rates and lowers costs. But critics say it also degrades some of the material being recycled.

Few communities are more environmentally conscious than Madison, Wis. Yet when the city's new single-stream recycling program launched in September, residents began recycling 8,100 tons more per week - material previously destined for the landfill. The city's recycling rate leaped 25 percent in a couple of months, pushing its landfill and collection costs down and boosting revenue from sales of reclaimed paper and metals dramatically, says George Dreckman, Madison's recycling coordinator.

"We're entering a whole new era," he says. "Enthusiasm for recycling was lagging before - we weren't 'flavor of the month' anymore. Single-stream has changed everything."

For about five years the national recycling rate has hovered around 30 percent. But as single-stream recycling becomes more popular, the rate could climb, experts say.

Since taking root in California in the late 1990s, the single-stream program has been spreading eastward to places like Denver and parts of Philadelphia. Today about 100 city and regional single-stream programs in 22 states serve 27 million residents - compared with 11 states and 16 million residents five years ago, according to Governmental Advisory Associates, a Westport, Conn., consulting firm.

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