It’s about to get a lot easier to recycle in Ann Arbor, a city which prides itself on being green. So why isn’t everybody happy?

The city’s switch to single-stream recycling, starting in July, means residents will no longer have to sort their recyclables into separate bins. They’ll just toss all of it–papers, cardboard, plastics, and tins–into a single cart to take to the curb.

While the city believes it’ll cut its costs and get residents to recycle more, single stream attracted its share of critics when it was discussed at City Council. And it’s already a campaign issue in the August primary election.

The city will spend $6 million from its solid waste enterprise fund for one-time expenses, including sorting and scanning machinery at the Materials Recovery Facility on Platt Road; large, lidded recycling carts, like the ones residents already use for trash pickup; and four new collection trucks with mechanical arms to empty the carts at the curb. The trucks will replace eight-year-old vehicles that will be auctioned.

Then there’s the contract, worth $2 million over ten years, with a company that offers coupons and discounts to get residents to recycle more. The trucks will record which households take part by reading computer chips in the carts; those who do will get rewards based on an equal share of the total weight of the recyclables collected by their truck.

Letters are running ten-to-one in favor of the change, says mayor John Hieftje. But local businesswoman Pat Lesko, who’s challenging Hieftje in the August Democratic primary, calls single stream an expensive mistake and a “snow job described as environmentalism.”

Instead of rewarding consumption, she says, the city should enact policies to get residents to consume less. She mentions incentives to use the ReUse Center, Recycle Ann Arbor’s resale shop for building supplies and home goods, and suggests opening neighborhood-based versions of it.

“If we had a successful recycling program we wouldn’t be expanding it, would we?” says Lesko. “We would be shrinking it, because we would be reducing and reusing more.”

“She’s against anything that I’m for,” responds Hieftje. “It seems to me making it easier to recycle means people will be putting less stuff in the trash.”

Single-stream recycling, however, hasn’t received universal acclaim. Lesko points to a 2009 study by the Container Recycling Institute, which found commingling recyclables often harms their resale value or renders them unfit for being reused. Paper gets mucked up with residue. Bottles get ground into shards. It’s tougher to separate the types of waste once it’s collected. Forty percent of the glass collected, the study says, ends up in landfills.

Hieftje says he was a single-stream skeptic himself, but city staff convinced him of its worth. Tom McMurtrie, the city’s systems planner and recycling coordinator, helped the mayor get on board. McMurtrie says the CRI study used older data that didn’t account for new technology that ironed out kinks in the single-stream system. “The early plants did have a high contamination rate,” he admits, but more recently, other communities have done much better, he says, with losses comparable to the current dual-stream system.

Right now, 2 percent of the recyclables collected in Ann Arbor become contaminated, McMurtrie says. He says that should increase only slightly, to 3 or 4 percent, under the single-stream process. And the payoff will be a dramatic increase in the amount of material recycled.

Ann Arbor residents, on average, recycle 357 pounds per household a year. With the simpler system and incentives, the city predicts that’ll double to 752 pounds in a few years.

If it works, the city will recoup its investment in the new system in six to seven years. With less waste going into the trash, the city expects to be able to discontinue a garbage route. It also will save on landfill tipping fees, which are $25 a ton. And the city expects to reclaim bragging rights as an environmental leader.

Ann Arbor still gets top marks for the percentage of people who participate in recycling–about 90 percent. But the city no longer leads in the volume of recyclables residents put out on the curb.

In fact, residential recycling has stayed fairly flat in recent years, even as the amount of trash sent to the landfill has increased since 2004, according to the city’s environmental reports. Residents tossed away 37,071 tons of trash in 2008–about 5,000 tons more than four years previously. They recycled 15,316 tons of materials (up by more than 1,000 tons since 2004) and put out another 10,000 tons of yard waste for composting (down by nearly 2,000 tons from 2004).

Together, recycling and composting diverted about 41 percent of Ann Arbor’s waste from landfills in 2008. Single-stream recycling is projected to tip that balance decisively toward the green side, increasing the diversion rate to about 60 percent.

Some of the boost will come from the additional types of plastics the city will accept as recyclables. Plastic toys, deli containers, and microwaveable dinner trays, for instance, will be accepted.

“There is a sense that there’s going to be a market for these other plastics, and that’s why we’re doing it,” says Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator–although that market may be abroad, requiring long-distance transport.

But the real key is the incentive program, says McMurtrie. Without it, recycling would increase only 28 percent, the city says, instead of nearly doubling. One local example is Rochester Hills. After it switched to single-stream recycling and contracted with a company called RecycleBank to create an incentive program, the quantity of materials recycled by its households more than doubled.

Ann Arbor also is contracting with RecycleBank. The company started in 2005 and now works with municipalities in twenty-six states, says spokesperson Melody Serafino. Ann Arbor’s incentive program will be rolled out first for single-family homes, with multifamily homes and apartments coming later.

Though the city is budgeting just $6.48 per household per year for the program, the projected average yearly reward is $250, with a maximum of $540. RecycleBank leverages its modest public funding by inviting local and national businesses to offer coupons, discounts, or gift cards to people who register for a RecycleBank account. Each week, homeowners who put out their recyclables earn points that can be redeemed online or by phone or donated to nonprofits.

One thing that won’t change is the role of Recycle Ann Arbor, which employs ten full-time drivers to pick up the recyclables using the city-owned trucks. The city will pay the nonprofit about $1.6 million this year in tonnage fees and per-unit charges.

Lesko calls single-stream recycling a profitable handout for Recycle Ann Arbor. Since 1990, the nonprofit has had to bid on the city recycling contract three times, mostly recently in 1998. (It was the lowest bidder.) In March, its contract was extended again for five years without being put up to bid when the nonprofit agreed to switch to the single-stream process.

Meanwhile, Lesko points out, the salary of its executive director increased nearly $30,000 to $98,377 in 2008, up from $68,815 in 2006, according to its IRS Form 990 filings.

The new system won’t increase Recycle Ann Arbor’s income–it could actually reduce it slightly, because the city will pay less for every ton of recyclables picked up by the new, automated trucks. But the nonprofit should benefit by seeing fewer workplace injuries and less turnover among drivers, since they’ll no longer be bending and lifting all day as they empty the existing plastic recycling bins.

What about those bins, which are about to become obsolete? The city suggests reusing them for in-house storage, either of recyclables or other possessions. And if they’re really not needed, they can always be placed inside the new cart and be recycled.