[Update: Jan. 8, 2018]. This story was updated to clarify that Boise’s new program is not, technically, a recycling initiative. Instead, it is a plastics recovery program.
Boise has found a way for city residents not only to keep recycling the same plastics they have recycled for years, but also to expand plastic recycling to items such as shopping bags, foam egg cartons, cereal box liners and candy wrappers.
Many of these materials will be converted to diesel fuel in Salt Lake City.
City officials said Thursday that they hope to roll out their updated recycling program this spring. Until then, Boiseans may keep putting the same plastics into their blue recycling carts for curbside pickup.
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Boise residents’ trash and recycling rates won’t increase because of the new program, officials said. Other local cities could join the program later.
“This is something that’s important to Boiseans,” city spokesman Mike Journee said. “So it was clear pretty clear that we had to find a solution to this where we weren’t sending [more plastics] back into the landfill.”
Republic Services, which provides trash and recycling services throughout the Treasure Valley, including Boise, told some outlets this week that customers should no longer put plastics in their recycling carts if they’re marked with any number between 3 and 7 inside the universal triangle-shaped recycling symbol. Typically, those are lighter-weight plastics, and many of them cannot be recycled in traditional processes. Republic is still accepting heavier plastics, including many items marked with a 1 or a 2.
Republic hauls all of the materials from the blue carts to Western Recycling’s Boise plant, the only one in Idaho that accepts unsorted recyclable materials. There, workers remove garbage, cans and paper from the recycling stream, owner Dave Dean said. They bale the plastics and send them to a variety of plants out of state, where optical sorters separate higher-quality plastics, such as items marked 1 or 2, from the lower-value plastic.
Dean said plastics make up only about 8 percent, by weight, of the recycling stream. Nos. 3-7 plastics account for about 7 percent of that weight, or less than 1 percent of all recycled materials.
Boise officials on Tuesday quickly announced that new recycling limitations do not apply to the city. Boise had worked for months with Republic and other groups on its revised program, Journee said Thursday.
But news about the changes broke before Republic had a chance to start outreach and education to its customers, business development manager Rachele Klein said. The company will undertake that work in coming weeks, Klein said.
When the updated program starts, residents will have to separate lighter-weight items, including plastic bags and Nos. 3-7 plastics, from the rest of the plastic and paper items they put in recycling bins.
The city will deliver orange 13-gallon bags for the lighter plastics. Residents will fill those bags with the items Republic is no longer taking, close them up and place them in their recycling carts for pickup. Sorters will set those bags aside.
Later, trucks will pick up the bags and drive them to a plant in Salt Lake City, where their contents will be converted into ready-to-use diesel fuel.
“Technically this is not a recycling program,” said Jeff Wooster of Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, the company that makes the plastic resin that’s used to manufacture the orange bags. “It’s a plastics recovery program.”
MONEY AND EDUCATION
City officials said they don’t know how much the revised program will cost. A $50,000 grant from The Dow Chemical Co., administered by pro-recycling nonprofit Keep America Beautiful, will cover some of the cost.
Happy Family Brands, a local company that makes things such as fruit pouches that could be recycled in the new program, brought the Dow grant to Boise’s attention and helped write the grant proposal, said Catherine Chertudi, Boise’s environmental programs manager.
Reynolds Consumer Products, the company that will make the orange bags, will pay to ship the light plastics to Salt Lake for the first two years, city officials said. Renewlogy, the company that operates the plant that turns the plastics into diesel, won’t pay Boise for the material or charge to accept it.
The city might save some money by removing things such as plastic shopping bags and egg cartons from the garbage the city pays to dump at the Ada County Landfill. By removing lightweight and low-value plastics from the recycling stream, Western can sell its recycled materials for more money, Dean said. Boise should benefit from that, city officials said.
The hard part, Boise officials acknowledge, will be educating residents about what, exactly, can be recycled and which items go where.
The number system itself is problematic. Even some plastics marked with a 1 or a 2, such as plastic egg cartons and lightweight water bottles, already aren’t recyclable and should be separated from the materials that consumers recycle, Chertudi said. Other plastics, like the caps on water bottles, have no recyclable markings but will be recyclable in the revised program.
The city will use Republic’s website, announcements and other outreach measures to help residents learn these details, said Public Works Department spokesman Colin Hickman.
City officials hope the changes will encourage Boiseans to reduce waste by being more careful about what they buy. They want consumers to avoid products with bulky or unrecyclable packaging material and to reuse items whenever possible.
“Part of our renewed outreach this spring is going to be a lot more on reduce and reuse,” Hickman said. “It’s a wake-up call that there’s a lot of material.”
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The city has known since about August that big changes were coming to plastics recycling around the world, Chertudi said.
Many recyclable materials are shipped to China, where they’re converted into a variety of products. Lighter plastics, including those marked 3-7, aren’t useful for much. In some cases, Chinese plants were simply burning them for energy production.
Some plastics are so lightweight that they get mixed up with recycled paper during the pulping process, contaminating the material.
To reduce pollution, the Chinese government recently banned imports of lightweight plastics, Chertudi said. That led to changes in the local recycling program.