A forgotten consequence of transition to single-stream recycling in states with container deposit laws

By Aman Luthra

Despite considerable debate on the environmental benefits of single-stream recycling (SSR), the general trend in cities across the U.S. has been a gradual move towards it. SSR refers to the management of commingled recyclables as opposed to source-separated streams. The benefits of SSR include increased volumes of recovered materials, increased landfill diversion rates, increased participation in the recycling program attributed to increased convenience of recycling, and reduced collection costs. The biggest problem with this system is the quality of recyclable materials. SSR systems typically have a higher proportion of contaminants than multiple stream systems. Estimates of contamination in SSR systems are 16 percent on average and can reach as high as 50 percent. The debate on SSR systems has focused largely on aforementioned environmental and financial issues. In states with container deposit laws however, there’s a social aspect that behooves further examination.

A container deposit law requires that consumers make a deposit (e.g. 5 or 10 cents, depending on the state) on beverage containers that is refunded when the empty container is returned. Ten U.S. states—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont—currently have such a law in place. In cities in these states, a certain section of the urban poor—sometimes referred to as “canners”—survive by redeeming empty containers for money. They are able to do so because not everyone actually returns the containers to redeem the deposits, particularly in large cities where residents rely mostly on public transportation systems. Economist Bevin Ashenmiller has shown that the working poor in Santa Barbara are able to make more than 20 percent of their annual income through canning. In cities where economic opportunities are limited and unemployment is high, there is little doubt that bottle deposit laws help the working and non-working poor make ends meet. But, how does do SSR systems impact canners?

There are two ways in which a transition to residential SSR systems impacts those canners who extract redeemables from household recyclable bins. First, SSR reduces the frequency of collection, say from once a week to once every two-weeks. From the city’s perspective, this is a cost saving strategy that motivated the transition. In doing so however, the frequency of income generation opportunity for canners is also reduced. Some might argue that although the frequency may be reduced, the total quantity of redeemable recyclables likely remains unchanged after the transition to the SSR system. This leads me to my second point: size and shape of the bin matters!

Reduced collection frequency in an SSR system is also associated with increasing the size of bins in which one stores the recyclables for collection. For instance, an 18-gallon recyclable bin might be replaced by a 96-gallon recycling cart. A typical 18-gallon bin is open, allowing canners to assess its contents to quickly determine if there is anything redeemable. A 96-gallon cart has a lid. There is no longer an easy way to tell if there’s anything of value inside. Further, the depth of the cart makes it more difficult for canners to reach into and extract redeemables.

From a city’s perspective, canners compete with municipal recycling systems, which rely on these materials to reduce overall costs. For instance, Robert Lange of New York’s Department of Sanitation has argued for pursuing legislative initiatives that “curb the activities of scavengers” in New York to address this competition. By making canning more difficult, SSR systems also do the same. However, what’s more efficient from a city perspective might not be the most efficient from the perspective of a canner who’s simply trying to make ends meet. If waste management is a crucial part of urban sustainability, then our urban futures must not only be environmentally sustainable but also socially and economically just. An imperative of social and economic justice might behoove us to think more deeply about the impact of waste management system transformations on a forgotten section of the urban populace—the canners.


Aman Luthra is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Kalamazoo College. His dissertation focused on contemporary changes in the landscape of the informal economy of waste in post-liberalization urban India.

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