Ada County trash study: More than half of waste headed to landfill could be recycled, composted

The Ada County landfill accepted 129,663 loads of trash last year. Well, that makes sense, because the landfill exists to take trash.

But not everything that goes to the landfill should go the landfill. Some trash is hazardous waste and should be specially disposed. Other trash could be recycled or reused, reducing the amount of waste that must get buried in the Boise Foothills.

“We don’t exactly know what is in there,” said Ted Hutchinson, deputy solid waste director.

The county is legally required to provide a landfill and with that comes the responsibility of safely and efficiently managing and disposing of millions of tons of stuff nobody wants.

So Ada County analyzed the quantity and composition of trash disposed at the landfill from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 31, 2014.

In addition to better understanding the makeup of its trash, the analysis also will help the county better evaluate its recycling and waste-prevention programs, Hutchinson said. The county paid $72,794 for the baseline study. Future waste stream analyses will measure changes and trends.

The yearlong study, conducted by Washington-based Green Solutions, examined trash brought to the landfill by garbage haulers and the public. It did not examine items brought to the landfill for separate disposal or recycling, such as wood, tires, electronics and household hazardous waste.

The composition of the county’s trash was determined by randomly selecting and sorting 157 samples of waste, which were sorted into 77 categories of materials.

The results? The county took in 369,650 tons of trash last year — the equivalent of 1,775 pounds per person per year or 4.9 pounds per person per day, a half pound more than the national average of 4.4 pounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A lot of trash dumped at the landfill could be put to better use elsewhere.

The county’s waste stream contains 12.5 percent of material that could be handled through typical recycling programs, plus an additional 33.8 percent of organic materials that could be diverted to composting programs. Other types of recycling programs, such as textiles, plastic bags and concrete, could potentially handle another 33 percent, leaving only 20.8 percent of the waste that would actually need to be handled as a waste, according to the report.

In reality, it is not possible to divert 100 percent of the recyclable and compostable materials, but through several programs already available, a big chunk of Ada County’s trash could easily be diverted from the landfill. Some recycling facilities in the Valley do take concrete, grocery stores accept plastic bags but short of donating clothes, no facilities exist for recycling textiles.

Republic Services provides residential and commercial trash and recycling services for all of Ada and Canyon counties (except for Kuna, which has a different garbage hauler).

Republic Services hauled about 285,000 tons of trash to the landfill and 30,000 tons of recycling to Western Recycling last year.

“The average household in the Treasure Valley recycles about 38 pounds per month but throws away about 195 pounds per month,” said Rachele Klein with Republic Services.

Western Recycling monthly processes about 4,500 tons of cardboard, paper, plastics, aluminum cans and scrap metal from Ada County, according general manager Rick Gillihan. About 2,500 of those tons are collected through curbside recycling.

“The amount of curbside recycling and other recycling that is being done is one of the things we are doing very well in this community,” Hutchinson said. But there is room for improvement.

“We see a huge amount of cardboard, paper and metals in our waste stream, things easily recycled locally,” Hutchinson said. “If there were additional effort on keeping that out of the waste stream, it would have amazing effects on the landfill. We really do encourage people take advantage of curbside recycling. It is easy with single-stream recycling. It is very effective and it does help overall with the material going into the landfill,” he said.


About one-third of the trash brought to the landfill is organic — yard debris or food waste. The report recommends encouraging landscapers and homeowners to take their grass clippings, weeds, leaves and small branches to a composting facility where the debris is turned into compost or mulch for farm, garden and landscaping use. Boise has just one yard-waste composting facility, Diamond Street Recycling, off Orchard Street south of the airport. The only option for composting food or kitchen scraps is backyard composting.

In Ada County’s case, however, having organic waste going into the landfill is not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, it helps generate electricity.

“The natural process of decomposition of the organic waste produces landfill gas which is a renewable energy source,” Hutchinson explained.

Since 2006, the county has had an agreement with Fortistar to convert methane gas produced from decomposing garbage into energy.

The county has installed a network of wells and pipes to capture the malodorous gas, some of which powers turbines that generate about 3.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 2,400 homes and provide about $250,000 annually in revenue for the county.

“If you remove the organics you lose the opportunity for the renewable energy source from the landfill,” Hutchinson said.

Also successful at the landfill is its recycling program for wood — trees, shrubs, stumps, wooden fencing, siding and spools, plywood, particle board, pallets, lumber and sawdust.

“Wood recycling focuses on things that can be turned into wood chips,” Hutchinson said.

The county grinds the wood into chips which are used for landscaping, cattle bedding and fuel supplement at electricity co-generation. Painted, lacquered or chemically treated wood is not acceptable. There is no need to remove nails, screws, hinges or other small metal fasteners; those are picked up by magnets during the grinding process and shipped to a metals recycling company.

“Between 10 and 12 percent of the total volume of the landfill is recycled through that wood recycling program,” Hutchinson said. The program could be utilized more, though, according to the report, 19 percent of the landfill’s general waste stream is wood that was not recycled.


A substantial amount of food produced and sold in the United States is not actually consumed, but spoils or is otherwise wasted before it can be eaten. Some estimates put the amount of wasted food as high as 40 percent, including losses on farms and ranches, in food processing plants, in the distribution chain and in restaurants and homes, according to the report.

Food waste identified in the study’s sorting process was counted as edible food if it was still in the original packaging and was unopened or only partially consumed. Food scraps removed and discarded as part of the food-preparation process (such as apple peels or fat and bones cut away from meat products) were not included in the edible food category.

The Ada County waste stream study estimates 30 percent of all food waste counted as edible food. Of the estimated 17,637 tons in edible food disposed at the county landfill last year, 59 percent came from residential waste. There are no existing food-waste composting facilities in the Valley, and none proposed.


In addition to wood recycling, the landfill has on-site recycling programs for household hazardous waste, tires, televisions and other electronics and refrigeration units.

Residents can drop off at the landfill free of charge household hazardous waste, such as paint, pesticides and batteries, and small electronics including televisions, computers and office equipment. The county charges to dispose of tires and refrigeration units.

Ada County landfill does not provide an area to recycle glass, plastic, paper, cardboard or aluminum recycling at the landfill, although the county’s solid waste advisory committee is exploring whether this is feasible, Hutchinson said.

Last year the county collected 1.2 million pounds of household hazardous waste, including paints, solvents and pesticides. Nearly half of this was collected at mobile collection sites in Boise, Meridian, Eagle and Kuna.

Much of the materials collected are partially used materials. Instead of disposing and destroying the materials they are made available in the landfill’s Household Hazardous Waste Facility for county residents to take, free of charge, for their personal use. Last year the county was able to recycle or reuse 97 percent of material it collected; the rest was incinerated.

Older televisions and computer monitors have cathode ray tubes (CRT) that can contain up to 8 pounds of lead that the county wants to keep out of its landfill. Other electronic items, such as radios, computers, telephones, nonhazardous medical equipment and printers, contain recyclable materials. To keep these items out of the landfill, the county offers free e-waste recycling at the landfill. Last year the county shipped 44,332 CRT units to a recycling facility and processed 2.2 million pounds of electronic waste. Since the county started its program to divert CRT units from the landfill in 2002 it has collected nearly 309,000 CRT units weighing nearly 15 million pounds. Also unwelcome in the landfill are tires. Last year it collected 866,000 pounds of tires, which it sold to companies that reuse the tires for athletic tracks, roadbeds and other uses.


Making the trek to the county’s landfill north of Boise can be a haul. Fortunately there are a couple options for getting rid of yard and wood waste or other trash closer to town.

Republic Services offers two waste transfer stations, one in Boise on Curtis Road south of the freeway and one in Meridian on Franklin Road between Linder and Ten Mile roads.

Waste transfer stations are facilities where solid waste is collected and reloaded into vehicles for shipment to a landfill or recycling facility.

In addition to trash, Republic Services accepts construction debris, rocks, concrete, refrigeration units, tires, wood and brush at its transfer stations.

Prices vary, but, like the county landfill, there is an $11 minimum charge. Metal, cardboard, paper, and plastic recycling is available free of charge.

The transfer stations are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Diamond Street Recycling at 5800 W. Diamond St. off Orchard Street south of the freeway accepts yard and wood waste, including grass clippings and leaves, which it makes into compost and mulch. It also accepts concrete, asphalt, bricks and gravel. Yard and wood waste disposal prices range from $3 to $10 per cubic yard with no minimum charge. The compost and mulch is available for purchase.

The facility is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.