Over a span of approximately five weeks beginning in mid-April, Boiseans will receive what City of Boise Public Works Department Communication Manager Colin Hickman calls “basically a little welcome kit” from the city. That kit will include 26 plastic bags and instructions on how to use them to recycle plastics
. The bags, safety-orange in color, mark an important shift in how the city will treat recyclables going forward.
“A motto has been 'With every massive challenge comes opportunities,'” Hickman said. “These bans from China have been a wake-up call and an opportunity for the city to do things in a better way.”
Up until late-2017, China had recycled approximately half of the planet's plastics and paper products that had been tossed into the garbage, but last year China announced it would no longer be “the world’s garbage dump” and banned the import of many recyclable items from foreign nations. The move sent cities around the globe into a tailspin over how to keep previously exportable recyclables out of landfills.
That included Boise, but shortly after the ban took effect Jan. 1, local officials announced they had been working on plan for months to solve the plastics problems, allowing Boiseans to recycle more items than ever before.
“This is an innovative solution that allows us to turn a bad situation into something quite positive,” said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter in January.
Starting in August 2017—well before China’s announcement—the city of Boise and Republic Services, which collects Boiseans’ waste, quietly partnered with Renewlogy
, a Salt Lake City-based firm that processes plastics into commercial biofuel. The partnership has been facilitated by a $50,000 grant
from Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, and the Keep America Beautiful initiative. The city will take on the rest of the cost of the program.
City officials said that at least for now there will be no additional fees assessed to Boiseans as a result of the switch, leaving the orange plastic bags as the most visible reminder that their recyclables will no longer be shipped overseas, and will instead be converted to fuel closer to home.
Residents will, however, have to learn new habits for using the orange bags. Items allowed in the bags include plastic bags and sleeves; plastic dinnerware; bubble wrap and other packaging materials; plastic food packages; foam items like bowls, cups and plates; and plastic dairy tubs and their lids. Those items should be rinsed of food and other contaminants, then allowed to dry before being placed in the orange bags.
“We ask that residents do their best. A good example would be toothpaste tubes,” Hickman said. “They’re now accepted in the energy bags. Nobody will probably cut open their toothpaste tube and clean out the remnant. We just ask people do their best to keep their items clean and dry.”
The biggest change residents will notice, Hickman said, may be that plastic grocery bags will now be accepted as recyclable materials. Previously, the bags gunked up the recycling machinery and were one of the most prolific contaminants in the program. The orange bag system will make a nuisance into an asset.
“We’re hoping that shift turns that from contaminants to fuel,” Hickman said.
Meanwhile, other changes are coming to the rest of the recycling bin: In addition to paper products like magazines, newspapers, office paper and mail, metals like aluminum and steel cans, flattened cardboard boxes and a limited number of plastic items including detergent and milk jugs, and soda and juice bottles, may also be placed directly into the blue bins. Some items will not be allowed into the bins or the bags: water bottles and hinged-lid or “clamshell” containers will henceforth be relegated to the trash.
Boise currently has a 98 percent recycling participation rate, and Hickman said the city expects the new rules to have a negligible impact on the continuity of the bin and bag system in the future. In fact, total participation across the Treasure Valley is likely to increase. On April 3, the Meridian City Council approved a limited program that will allow 1,500 Meridian households to recycle some plastics through Boise’s partnership with Renewlogy. The Meridian project will last for one year and cost $12,000, which will be paid through the Meridian Community Recycling Fund.
If more than 1,500 Meridian households register for the project, “We will be thrilled,” said Andrea Pogue, a Meridian Solid Waste Advisory Commission commissioner. “That is the kind of data we want to report to the commission,” she said.
Meanwhile, at Boise City Hall, Hickman said city officials were looking beyond waste disposal and toward waste management.
“Long-term, we’ve identified that the focus has been on recycling for a long time,” Hickman said. “How do we start moving the needle on the conversation about reducing and reusing?”