It sounded like a win-win scenario for scrap processors, consumers, cities, and busy households: A process that would collect all waste and recycling in one bin, then send it to a facility to sort the valuable recyclables from the everyday food and residential waste. Mixed waste for short. Households would no longer have to sort their waste from their recyclables, and communities would have fewer trucks on the road. Private companies take care of the recycling and waste separation so cities do not have to pay capital costs to build facilities. Recyclables would go on to further processing, while some of the remaining waste would be converted into alternative energy to power cars or office buildings, saving cities money and landfill space.

In cities where few residents recycle, proponents say such mixed waste collection and processing automatically increases recycling participation and recovers recyclable materials otherwise lost to a landfill. Yet most efforts to operate such programs to date have been unsuccessful. An Alabama facility, touted as the high-tech model for the future, shuttered after just 18 months, citing low commodity prices for its closure. In 2013, Houston won a $1 million grant to help build a state-of-the-art mixed-waste facility, but that project has since stalled. In Indianapolis, city officials were excited for a new mixed-waste operation that would work in tandem with the city’s existing waste-to-energy facility, but the deal was mired in legal battles. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in February that city officials broke competitive bidding laws by extending a pre-existing contract instead of opening the process to other bidders. Other mixed-waste plants in places such as Ohio also have recently closed.

Despite the closures, proponents say the model offers plenty of benefits if set up correctly. Today’s low commodity prices may have hurt chances for mixed-waste operations to stay afloat, they say, but the concept is still viable for the future, as long as future business models can account for periods of low prices.

Opponents, however, say there’s another reason mixed-waste processing facilities have closed: The practice contaminates certain otherwise-recyclable materials because they are commingled with food waste or other refuse, which renders those materials useless for resale as scrap commodities. Because of that, they add, mixed-waste processing does not increase the amount of recovered material that is actually recycled, even if plenty of recyclable material flows through the mixed-waste facility every day.

(Just as recyclers have varied opinions about mixed-waste processing, they also have different names for the process: Some call it one-bin collection, while others call it a dirty MRF because it intentionally handles both waste and recyclables, in contrast with a traditional MRF, which only handles recyclables.) With lawsuits, closures, and stalls on some of the biggest mixed-waste processing centers in the United States, recyclers and cities alike are wondering: What is the real future of mixed-waste processing?

To read the full story, visit