To understand how single stream has changed city recycling, ride on a recycling truck and talk with the man who drives it.

Allen Kennedy, Recycle Ann Arbor’s curbside manager, sets up the ride. He tells me he’s pleased with the new system. “When it was dual stream, a driver could do 600 to 800 stops a day. Now with single stream and the automated trucks, it’s more like 950 to 1,050. Those efficiencies have let Recycle Ann Arbor consolidate eight routes to seven.

“You’ll be riding with Gerald Rush,” Kennedy says. “He’s been here twelve years, and he really takes pride in his job and his truck.” A big man with wrap-around sunglasses and a black Recycle Ann Arbor cap, Rush has a strong grip and a ready smile as I climb aboard the big green-and-white recycling truck.

He smoothly stops the truck at the next cart and moves the hydraulic arm with the joystick in his left hand. As the twelve-foot arm deftly picks up, dumps, and replaces the cart, the truck shakes violently.

“The rocking’s not that bad,” Rush laughs over the roar of the engine. “These trucks are the Cadillacs of the industry. It’s so high tech, it’s like mission control.”

Each of the four new trucks cost $289,000. They “were already scheduled for replacement,” explains city solid waste coordinator Tom McMurtrie in an email, “so the only additional cost was the automated arms ($45,000 each). Four additional automated trucks will be purchased over the next three years.”

Rush says the new program is working. “We’ve got 90 percent participation today. That’s up from 80 to 85 percent before. And it’s because people love their carts!” But the best thing for him, he says, is that “single stream saves your body. I’ve had my injuries over the years: both knees and a rotator cuff. What with the lift and repetitive motion, [a driver’s work] life expectancy before single stream was about five to seven years. Now, who knows?”

After finishing his route, Rush wheels the big truck up to the Materials Recovery Facility off Platt. He weighs it on the vast scale, then pulls around the other side of the building and dumps everything he’s collected.

On the building’s east side an enormous inclined conveyor belt hauls the raw material up to a series of smaller conveyor belts ranged across the middle of the building, where workers on catwalks and high-tech machines sort the recyclables. The west wall is stacked with bales of sorted materials to be delivered to plants that buy recyclables.

Since the switch to single stream, the city’s share of those sales has more than tripled, from $365,000 to $1.3 million. With Ann Arbor’s recycling up only about 20 percent, most of the added volume has come from Toledo and Lansing and two dozen other communities that now send their recyclables here for processing. Income would be even higher were it not for a 10 percent contamination rate, up from just 2 percent under the dual-stream system.

McMurtrie says the reason it’s so high is that “materials coming from other sources had a high percentage of contamination-particularly Toledo. But because Ohio has no bottle return law, Toledo’s recyclables include a huge number of aluminum cans, making their material particularly valuable. The material from Toledo has already started to get better, says McMurtrie. “We’re hoping for 5 percent.”

This article has been edited since it appeared in the August 2011 Ann Arbor Observer. The number of recycling routes has been corrected