Boise & Garden City

Boise's recycling program leaves even careful recyclers confused. Here's what to do

Watch the process of separating and sorting recyclables

On a typical workday, about 20 trash trucks pull into a Western Recycling facility in Boise and dump about 190 tons of unsorted recyclables — cardboard, paper, plastics, aluminum and tin — onto a warehouse floor. That’s when things get hopping.
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On a typical workday, about 20 trash trucks pull into a Western Recycling facility in Boise and dump about 190 tons of unsorted recyclables — cardboard, paper, plastics, aluminum and tin — onto a warehouse floor. That’s when things get hopping.

Barely a year ago, Boiseans had a gray bin for trash and a blue one for recycling. Now they have four options: trash, recycling, compost and, most recently, the orange bag.

All these choices have left even the most conscientious recyclers a little confused. You know you're supposed to throw that milk jug in the recycling bin. People who are paying close attention know that the plastic cap should go in the orange bag. But what about the little plastic ring around the jug's spout? Do you have to cut that off?

And what about a plastic deli meat bag with a paper label? Or a paper envelope with a plastic window? Literature the city of Boise has distributed doesn't mention those items.

On top of that, some Boiseans still haven't received their orange bags.

Here's the good news: If you follow directions on the flyers the city has distributed to people's homes and posted online, you'll do fine. There's even a new flyer available that gives advanced instructions for which plastics to put in recycling, the orange bag and the trash.

For the first time since the beginning of the year, that flyer gives recyclers numbers to rely on. It announces that all plastic items with a numeral from 4 to 7 inside the universal triangle-shaped recycling symbol can be placed in the orange bag. No. 3 plastics must be thrown in the trash. As for Nos. 1 and 2? If the container is shaped like a bottle, jug or jar, you can put it in the blue recycling cart — except for the flimsy water bottles you can crinkle in one hand. Those belong in the trash.

You don't have to be too finicky about small details the flyers don't mention. The city expects, and accepts, that you'll probably put some stuff in the wrong place, and a slight amount of this contamination is OK.

Beginning in mid-April, Boise will phase in a program to send unrecyclable plastics in orange bags to Salt Lake City, where Renewlogy will turn them into diesel. Plastic water bottles and clamshell containers will be trash.

"There's just no way that in a massive citywide program like this, you're going to get 100 percent, pure, clean material," Boise Public Works spokesman Colin Hickman said. "What we're really worried about is your bigger contaminants. People putting large amounts of paper into the energy bags or large amounts of metal, or something like that. A small remnant of a label is not going to make that much of a difference."

So you can leave that plastic ring on the milk jug when you toss it in the recycling bin. You can throw the envelope with its plastic window into recycling, too. You don't have to scrape off that paper label before throwing a plastic bag into the orange bag.

And if you're one of the people who hasn't received the bundle of orange bags that you were supposed to get a month ago, you can email the city at to get yours delivered. (What about getting new bags when you use yours up? Read on.)

A good start

An outside audit of about 100 bags' contents found some materials that shouldn't be there, Hickman said. The most common were plastic items like water bottles in addition to some paper and metals.

Despite complexities like that, city leaders are happy with how residents are adapting.

In almost two months, Republic Services' trucks have picked up about 54,000 pounds of non-recyclable plastics in orange plastic bags, Hickman said. That equates to about 38,000 bags filled and collected from 73,000 households.

"We've been blown away just with the enthusiasm of residents, just the willingness to dive into the world of plastics," Hickman said.

A Boise family tried out the Hefty EnergyBag recycling initiative that the city has adopted. Here's what they thought.

How it works

To recap:

Boise's orange bag program was a response to a market disruption that has sent cities and counties across the western United States scrambling. Early this year, China announced it would accept neither flimsy plastic materials, such as water bottles and vegetable containers, nor most of the recycled paper from the western states.

The orange bag program isn't recycling, but it keeps items out of the landfill that couldn't be recycled before, including foam products like egg cartons and meat packaging, plastic bags, packing and shipping materials, even empty toothpaste tubes.

You put your filled-up orange bag of plastics in your blue recycling bin. Republic's trucks deliver the bags, along with the recyclable materials — metal cans, plastic milk jugs, paper — to Western Recycling's plant on South Cole Road. Sorters separate the orange bags from the recyclablesand set them aside to be smashed, baled, loaded on a truck and sent to a plant in Salt Lake City, where a company called Renewlogy turns them into diesel fuel.

The first truckload left Boise for Renewlogy's plant this month, loaded with about 42,000 smashedbags. Renewlogy says it can make six barrels of diesel from every ton of plastic it receives. So Boise's truckload could be converted into more than 5,000 gallons of fuel.

Other Treasure Valley cities, including Meridian and Garden City, have joined Boise in the orange bag program, though on a limited scale.

Western Recycling owner Dave Dean said he does not yet know if the orange bag program is leading to fewer contaminants among recyclables.

The orange bag program came on the heels of a composting program that Boise debuted last year. Like recycling and composting, the orange bag program is open to residents of standalone homes and apartment buildings with no more than seven units.

What about replacement bags?

The program is still evolving.

Hickman said the city doesn't know how many households are using the orange bags. It also hasn't figured out how to get new bags to the homes that use them up.

The city expects to deliver enough new bags to residents' homesto get through next year, Hickman said, though it hasn't yet said when. Stores around town also might start selling them to participants, he said.

Long term, Hickman said, the city wants to deploy assets like smart phone apps to help people figure out what goes where. In the meantime, review the list below.


Here are the plastic items Boiseans should throw in the trash:

All plastic water bottles, no matter what number is stamped in the triangular recycling symbol.

All hinged-lid plastic “clamshell” containers for to-go food, fruit and vegetables

All wax-coated containers: to-go cups, frozen dinner trays, dairy containers, juice cartons

Here’s what goes straight into the blue recycling cart, loose and unbagged:

Plastics: Only soda bottles, juice bottles, detergent jugs, milk jugs

Metal: Aluminum and steel cans, foil

Paper: Magazines, newspaper, office paper, mail

Cardboard: flattened boxes

Here’s what to put, clean and dry, into the orange bags:

All plastic bags for bread, chips, snacks, fruits, vegetables, salads, pet food, pet treats, groceries

Plastic tubs and lids for dairy items such as yogurt, butter and sour cream

Squeezable plastic juice pouches

Plastic single-serving snack packages for pudding, etc.

Plastic dinnerware: Straws, utensils, cups, plates, etc.

Foam products: egg cartons, cups, plates, bowls, meat trays

Packaging: plastic food wrap, meat and cheese packaging, candy wrappers, food storage bags, plastic bottle caps

Packing and shipping materials: plastic bubble wrap, air packs and pillows, shrink wrap, plastic envelopes

Bathroom items: empty toothpaste tubes, empty deodorant sticks, plastic tubes for lotions and creams