It was good news/bad news at the Idaho Environmental Forum
this afternoon. That's where John Caputo, of Republic Services, and Catherine Chertudi, of the Boise Public Works Department, delivered presentations on the future of recycling under the theme "Trash or Treasure: Is there value in recycling?"
Taking the podium during the lunchtime session, Caputo—who works as the West Region materials marketing manager for Republic Services in Seattle—told attendees at The Owyhee that among the many challenges facing recycling is a weak global market for recyclable materials.
"It's the lowest I've seen since my time with Republic Services—17 years," Caputo said.
He said China, one of the biggest importers of the United States' recycled materials, has significantly heightened its quality standards, so if inspectors see more than three contaminants in a bail of recycled goods, they'll send it back to the United States. While it takes $800 per container to ship to China, it costs as much as $5,000 to ship the rejected containers back.
Contamination can be a serious problem at sorting facilities, as well. Caputo said if someone throws a pair of jeans or a garden hose into a recycling bin, it can wreak havoc on the sorting facility equipment and operation.
Recycling services are also battling packaging companies, which are innovating new packaging that is not friendly to recycling. Canned peaches, for example, are increasingly being packaged in layers of plastic, rather than steel and tin, then topped with a steel lid. Caputo said neither the plastic nor the steel collectors want it.
"Packaging companies need to start thinking of a product after its shelf life," Caputo said.
He also talked about the decline of valuable recycled materials, such as newsprint. He said in 2004, 65 percent of recycled materials were made up of newspapers. Now, that number is closer to 30 percent. Traditionally, newspapers have been recycled into things like shoeboxes and cereal boxes.
The good news, Caputo said, is that parts of the U.S., especially the Midwest, have continued to increase their recycling capacity and recycled material is still China's No. 1 import.
Continuing with the good news, Catherine Chertudi, of the Boise Public Works Department Environmental Division, provided an update on the city's Curb It recycling program, which was launched in 2009
, giving every home a large blue recycling cart that didn't require sorting.
Giving people the option to recycle without having to sort increased recycling by 30 percent, but Chertudi added some words of warning.
"If in doubt, throw it out," she said.
About 10 percent of the things people put into their recycling bins turn out to be trash. That's costly for the sorting process and ultimately ends up sending recyclables to the landfill. She said things like plastic grocery bags, textiles, yard materials and diapers do not belong in recycling bins.
Then she turned to glass recycling. Glass recycling is extremely expensive, according to Caputo. It costs $35 per ton to transport to a facility—of which there are few, with the closest being in Portland, Ore., and Seattle—and is only worth around $4 a ton.
To tackle this problem, the city of Boise bought a glass crusher in 2010 from the Mountain Home Air Force Base for $400. Now, citizens can drop off their bottles at glass collection bins throughout the city, then it's taken to east Boise and crushed into sand-like mixtures that can be used for concrete, log home restoration, graffiti removal, powder coating, electronics and more.
The glass crusher processes 1,000 yards of glass per month.
Despite the city's leaps forward in recycling, Chertudi still sees many opportunities for expansion, including an increase in commercial recycling, an organic composting pick-up and facility—which would include the purchase and distribution of at least 75,000 carts to homes around Boise—and a commercial food waste plant with an anaerobic digestion process to generate electricity or heat.
Chertudi said there's a way to recycle almost everything in Boise, whether it's taking old electronics to the Ada County Landfill or the hazardous waste collection sites, giving old cellphones to the Boise Police Department for use by victims of domestic violence, or donating textiles to various nonprofits.
"Even during the City Hall renovation, we gave the old bricks away to the public and they just loved it," Chertudi said.