It’s a dirty job, but someone has to sort Idaho’s recycling

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.
Up Next
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.

As a conveyer belt loaded with tons of recycling zipped by, Joe Yamson focused on spotting and removing items that didn’t belong. A stray battery here, an odd plastic bag there. His movements were fluid and his eyes never left the belt, which was no small feat considering it was moving at a brisk 90 feet per minute.

“When he gets his mojo on up there, we call him the Zen master,” said his boss, Rick Gillihan, as Yamson tossed unwanted items into nearby sorting bins.

Most bizarre item found in the recycling: A live 4-foot-long boa constrictor. “You would be amazed at what we find,” said Rick Gillihan.

Yamson is among the best of about two dozen hard-hatted workers who perch 14 feet in the air amid a maze of catwalks, conveyer belts, spinning disks, rotating screens and other contraptions. They move in unison at a frenetic pace. Spot, reach, remove, repeat. Hundreds of times a day.

“This is the chocolate factory,” said Gillihan.

Meet ‘murf’

This “chocolate factory” is Idaho’s only materials recovery facility — or “murf” as it’s called in the recycling business. The facility separates, sorts and bales the material we recycle to be sold to manufacturers that reuse it to make new items.

“All of the aluminum goes to smelters in the Midwest. ... The paper is made back into different types of paper or cardboard products. The plastic is reground, washed and made back into other plastic items,” said Gillihan, Western Recycling’s general manager.

Boise and Meridian started no-sort recycling in 2009. Before that, the consumers separated recyclables and placed them curbside for pick-up. Now, all of Ada and Canyon counties’ curbside recycling is no-sort, except for Kuna.

Some of the strange items that have landed at Western Recycling’s facility: a rifle, a boxing heavy bag, a child’s car seat, several arrows, a coat rack, a garden hose and assorted clothes.

With no-sort recycling, all of our plastic containers, paper products, cardboard and aluminum and tin cans are put in one container. In the past, that material had to be hauled to Western Recycling then baled and taken by truck to Portland or Seattle to be sorted. Given the volume Western Recycling was receiving, it was not a cost-effective process.

Enter the murf.

Western Recycling, which has been recycling in the Treasure Valley since 1978, opened the $5 million 48,000-square-foot materials recovery facility on South Cole Road in September 2014.

“We are currently processing about 4,000 tons a month on materials collected not only in the Treasure Valley but also in southern Idaho — Pocatello, Twin Falls, Idaho Falls and Rexburg,” Gillihan said.

Most unexpected item found in the recycling: Money. “Sometimes people get careless,” said Joe Yamson.

“We now separate out the cardboard, mixed paper, plastic and aluminum and tin into separate streams and we sell that directly to end users,” said Gillihan. “We sell to both domestic and foreign markets … primarily China, also Vietnam and India.”

It’s a far cry from the early days.

“Back in the late 1980s we had a portable conveyor belt at the landfill and we were running solid waste across it and pulling out recyclables,” said Gillihan, who has been with Western Recycling since 1982. “That is really old-school recycling. That was long before curbside recycling.”

A loud and smelly process

When the commingled recyclables arrive at the plant, they are dumped on the tipping floor and pushed onto a conveyor belt that takes them to a sort line that is 14 feet in the air.

The material travels along a conveyor belt, passing through various automated devices that separate the recyclables. Large magnets snag the tin and other metal. A rolling screen carries items through a narrow opening that lets paper pass through and sends larger items on another route where gravity takes over.

We get a lot of people who do it for an hour and then they just cannot do it. They get nauseous. It takes a different kind of cat to do this job.

Rick Gillihan, Western Recycling general manager

Workers line the conveyer belt, pulling off cardboard, trash, misdirected items or things that can’t be recycled.

Working the sort line is not an easy job. The plant runs 10 hours a day, five days a week and processes 16 to 18 tons an hour. The pace is relentless. The open-air warehouse is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The atmosphere is loud. And it stinks.

“Not everybody can do this,” said Gillihan.

But the real deal-breaker comes from standing above ground and continually looking at the fast-moving conveyer belt, which whisks by from 30 to 90 feet per minute.

“They get motion sickness. We get a lot of people who do it for an hour and then they just cannot do it. They get nauseous,” said Gillihan. “It takes a different kind of cat to do this job.”

Yamson is one of those cats. He has worked the sort line since the plant opened.

“I just love to see at the end of the line a clean product. The cleaner the product, the better,” said Yamson.

‘Please, please, please no batteries ...’

The upside to no-sort recycling is that the volume of recycling collected curbside in the Treasure Valley has doubled. The downside is contamination — when we put non-recyclable material or trash into the blue bins.

About 50 percent of the material Western Recycling receives is mixed paper, another 30 percent is cardboard, 8 percent is plastic and 2 percent is aluminum and tin.

The remaining 10 percent is non-recyclable, which adds up to almost 400 tons of trash each month that must be manually pulled off the sort line and hauled to the landfill.

400 tons Amount of material that Western Recycling receives each month that is actually trash

The most common contaminate is plastic film — things like shopping and trash bags and plastic wrap.

Some consumers put their recyclables in plastic bags and then put the bags in the recycle bins. Others, either accidentally or intentionally, put full bags of garbage in recycle bins.

When that happens, workers tear open the bags, dump the contents on the belt and throw the bag into the trash pile. If the bag is filled with garbage, workers have to shut down the sort line and pull out the garbage piece by piece. To make matters worse, any plastic film that gets into the line clogs the machinery, which means workers have to cut it out.

“Anybody that operates a MRF will tell you plastic film is just the worst,” said Gillihan. “The amount of labor that we spend pulling out plastic film is phenomenal.”

Gillihan jokingly calls that plastic “value-added garbage.” The consumer took the time to put the plastic bags into the recycle bin, the hauler collected it and took it to Western Recycling, where employees have deal with it. “And now we are going to haul it to the landfill. It is very expensive trash,” he said.

The worst, though, are batteries.

“Please, please, please no batteries of any kind,” said Gillihan. “They catch on fire.”

On Feb. 4 a rechargeable battery that got compressed in a paper baler caught fire. The flames consumed three refrigerator-sized bales of paper.

“I thought it was going to burn this whole building down,” said Gillihan.

No one was injured, though one person was treated for smoke inhalation.

“It could have turned tragic very quickly.”

Workers have to physically extract any batteries imbedded in the tons of material. “You cannot get every single one,” he said.

The batteries also can be run over by vehicles on the tipping floor or go through paper shredders.

“We have had three instances where the mobile shredder trucks ran a battery through the shredder and it caught on fire.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

What should — and shouldn’t — go into your blue bin


▪ Aluminum and tin: Rinsed soda cans, soup cans, pie pans, aluminum foil, uncoated metal hangers and empty aerosol cans. Labels can stay on.

▪ Corrugated cardboard: Flatten or cut boxes so they fit completely inside the bin.

▪ Paper: Newspapers, shredded paper, magazines, catalogs, junk mail, colored paper, paper bags, envelopes, brochures, greeting cards, wrapping paper without foil, construction paper and phone books.

▪ Plastics: Recycle containers with a number of 1 through 7 on the bottom. Labels and lids can stay on.

▪ Used motor oil: It must be placed next to the recycle bin in a transparent plastic container labeled “used motor oil.” You may recycle up to two gallons per household per week. Do not mix oil with other fluids such as gasoline or antifreeze.


▪ Glass and styrofoam.

▪ Batteries, hazardous waste and pesticide containers.

▪ Foil-lined items like cookie and chip bags and milk or juice cartons with wax or with foil lining.

▪ Food containers with excessive residue.

▪ Hardbound books.

▪ Packing peanuts or bubble wrap.

▪ Paper products like plates, cups, towels, napkins, tissues, diapers or toilet paper.

▪ Plastic grocery bags, garbage bags, plastic wrap or film, plastic utensils or plastics labeled “PLA.”

▪ Yard and food waste, televisions, monitors.

When in doubt: The gray bin is for garbage, the blue bin is for recycling.

Boise glass collection program

The city of Boise has partnered with Environmental Abrasives Warehouse, a local manufacturer and distributor for industrial abrasive products used primarily in the sand-blasting industry, to crush glass bottles and jars for reuse.

The city collects an estimated 285 tons of glass each month and delivers it to Environmental Abrasives. “EAW does not pay the city for glass, nor do we pay them a tipping fee,” said Catherine Chertudi, the city’s environmental programs manager.

Glass recycling guidelines

▪ All types and colors of glass bottles and jars are accepted, but remove lids and caps

▪ Do not leave plastic or paper bags, cardboard boxes or garbage at the drop-off sites.

▪ Items not accepted: Light bulbs; porcelain or ceramic products, including Pyrex, mirrors, window glass, fish tanks, fluorescent tubes and CFL bulbs.

Collection sites in Boise

▪ East Boise: 2205 E. Goodman St. behind Idaho Botanical Garden

▪ Southeast Boise: Fire Station No. 3, 2202 Gekeler Lane; Office Max, 2509 S. Broadway; Fire Station No. 12, 3240 Idaho 21 near Columbia Village

▪ Boise State University: 1350 S. Earle St.

▪ North Boise: Albertsons, 1650 W. State St.

▪ Central Bench: Albertsons, 1653 S. Vista Ave.; Country Club Plaza, 4500 Overland Road; Pacific Recycling, 5120 W. Emerald

▪ West Boise: Republic Services, 11101 W. Executive Drive; Fire Station No. 6, 6933 W. Franklin Road; Fire Station No. 10, 12065 W. McMillan Road; Albertsons, 10700 Ustick Road

▪ Northwest Boise: Albertsons, 3614 W. State St.

▪ South Boise: Western Recycling, 1990 S. Cole Road