Watch the process of separating and sorting recyclables
The city of Boise says it is stuck between two bitter options for paper recycling: stop the program altogether or raise rates to keep it going.
City leaders said Tuesday that the choice is being forced on them because China recently imposed new restrictions on recyclable paper imports. China is the destination for most recyclable materials in the western United States, and it lowered its accepted level of contamination in mixed paper so much that almost no municipal recycling center can comply, said Steve Burgos, the city’s public works director.
The dilemma comes just six weeks after Republic Services said it would no longer accept many of the plastics in Treasure Valley customers’ blue recycling carts because China was no longer accepting them. Boise found an alternative for its residents by striking a deal with a business in Salt Lake City that will convert the plastics to diesel.
The “mixed paper” China no longer will accept includes newspapers, junk mail, magazines, catalogs and noncorrugated cardboard. Common contaminants include plastic films such as newspaper bags and thin water bottles that become crushed and mixed up with paper before sorting occurs.
If paper recycling ends, Boiseans will send 640 more tons of paper to the landfill every month, the city’s Public Works Department estimates. That’s an unhappy option for a city that prides itself on being environmentally responsible.
On the other hand, raising rates is always unpopular. A rate increase of perhaps $2 might generate enough money to pay a commercial recycler to take Boise’s paper, but it might not, Burgos said. He said there are too many variables to predict yet how much money continued paper recycling would require.
Burgos said his staff is looking for stable domestic buyers to take Boise’s mixed paper. He said he is not satisfied with what he has found, but he’s optimistic Boise can get off the roller coaster of global markets. He recommended the city simply stop recycling mixed paper for now and look for long-term solutions while uncertainties such as additional costs and technological advancements become clearer.
On Tuesday, the City Council told Burgos and his staff to examine details such as cost, timing and effectiveness of both approaches and report back next month.
Any decision could complicate the city’s efforts to educate the public about waste at a time when Boise is planning the new system for disposing of low-grade plastics.
Last year, the city added a residential composting program and charged residents extra for it.