Recycling Risk: How Boise's Trash Gamble Paid Off 

Two years later, Boise's Curb It program is a model in the Treasure Valley

Two years ago, the City of Boise decided there had been enough talking and coaxing: It was time to do something substantive about recycling and trash in the City of Trees.

Partnering with Allied Waste, the company that the city contracts to haul trash, Boise came up with the Curb It program, marking the first time the city had ever felt inspired to create a brand name for trash service other than, well, trash day. The shiny new campaign came complete with educational outreach programs, standardized carts for the entire city, fully automated pickup and, most importantly, no-sort curbside recycling.

City leaders were betting that more residents would step up and recycle if it were made as simple as possible, and those who participated would get a break on their trash bill. After an initial outlay of roughly $4.5 million, city leaders held their collective breath and waited--so did nearly every other municipality in the valley.

Everyone waited to see if Boise would fly or go crashing off a cliff. The program sounded intriguing, but no one wanted to hitch their political clout to what might be a burning wagon.

Initially, reaction from the public was mixed. While many said it was about time the city had a more comprehensive recycling program, others bristled at the idea. In the spring of 2009, calls to the mayor's hotline echoed with claims that there was no way the new containers would hold all the trash and yard waste; that the monstrous cans would never fit in garages; that the elderly could never manage to move them and that the cans would be unsightly.

Others felt the trash program was an attack on personal freedoms.

"I think it's the most communist thing I've ever heard of when they tell us we have to use a garbage can; we're not being asked to use it. I don't approve of it. I don't like it a bit," stated one hotline caller.

"The concept of forcing people to participate in recycling is un-American. Frankly, it's un-American to penalize us to do that," said another.

City officials expected some negative feedback, which is why they undertook a carefully planned, professionally executed marketing strategy that included a user-friendly website (, multiple mailings and meetings with neighborhood associations in an effort to slowly and carefully make their case while helping ease residents through the largest change to the city's trash program ever.

Now, not only is Boise's program thriving, but nearly every city in the valley has a similar trash and recycling program.

"There was a lot of pressure, and it is gratifying," said Paul Woods, Boise's environmental division manager, as a smile spread across his face.

City managers have reason to have a little swagger in their step when it comes to recycling. With a roughly 95 percent participation rate among the just fewer than 70,000 households serviced by Allied Waste in Boise­, Woods and others say the program has exceeded all of their expectations.

In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Boise Public Works Department reported that 42 percent of respondents felt trash service was much better, and 67 percent felt that recycling was much better than before the new program started.

Allied Waste also services Eagle, Garden City, Star, outlying areas of Meridian and unincorporated Ada County. While recycling participation isn't quite as high in some of these areas as it is in Boise, participation across Ada County is roughly 90 percent, estimates Rachele Klein, business development manager for Allied Waste in Idaho. Kuna is the only city in Ada County that is not part of the recycling program.

"We're really pleasantly surprised in all the municipalities," Klein said. "New people joined the ranks of recyclers because it was easy and they had the space."

According to Allied Waste, the average home produces 200 pounds of waste per month. Currently, about 35 pounds of that is going into recycling, double the rate before the Curb It program began.

Klein said while those numbers are good, the company and city hope to have that number up to 50 pounds of recycling per month.

Some in the community have raised concerns that some of their neighbors are signing up for recycling for the $4 per month credit on their bill, without actually recycling. While this may happen, officials said they aren't concerned about it occurring on a large scale. Besides, if you're a recycling scofflaw, they know who you are.

"We don't have concerns that people are abusing it," Klein said. "You see nearly all the carts out if you drive up any street. Drivers know which houses recycle and don't." And, she said, they'll eventually flag homes who fail to put out any recycling.

The slightly controversial RFID chips embedded in each trash and recycling cart also give officials the ability to track just how often carts are put out for collection (although city officials stress there is no way the scanners can record what's actually in the carts, despite initial big-brother conspiracy theories that the government was tracking exactly what was in our trash). While only a few trial routes are testing the scanners, the system is slated to be used citywide eventually.

Catherine Chertudi, who heads the trash program for the city's Environmental Division, said roughly 68 percent of those who are part of the recycling program put their carts out every time a pickup is scheduled (every other week), adding that others put recycling out less frequently.

If a customer fails to use his or her recycling cart, the city and Allied have the ability to remove the house from the program, and thereby take the discount away. But so far, that hasn't happened.

"I think people are better about being honest," Klein said.

Drivers also have the ability to tag recycling carts filled with what officials call "contaminated" materials--basically anything you're not supposed to put in the recycling carts, including yard waste, Styrofoam and glass. Drivers will refuse to empty these carts and leave a note explaining why. If people persist in breaking the rules, the city can take the cart.

Public education efforts are ongoing, but now they're based on teaching people what they can't recycle--no Styrofoam, plastic film or hazardous waste.

But getting a true measure of just how much trash is being diverted from the landfill is a challenge in itself. Recycling is measured by weight but trash put into the landfill is measured in cubic yards. And while officials have rough guesses of just how much a cubic yard of trash weighs, comparisons are difficult.

To help streamline the process, the Seaman's Gulch Landfill has installed massive scales to actually weigh incoming trash. The system is undergoing testing and should be running later this year.

"We'll have a better estimate on what's going on," Klein said.

The switch also means a change in how the city is billed for trash but just what that change means is anybody's guess.

Woods said he doesn't expect a cost increase but a lot of work and calibration needs to be done before anyone knows the exact repercussions of the change.

Still there are some major hurdles the city has to jump, namely figuring out how to expand recycling by businesses and what to do with glass.

While residential customers get a discount for recycling, commercial customers don't enjoy the same incentives. Businesses can reduce the cost they pay for trash removal by diverting recycling, but Woods said the challenge is in finding a way to tailor a commercial recycling program that works for mom-and-pop shops and Micron-sized corporations alike, as well as dealing with an array of materials and businesses' needs for security and privacy with sensitive materials.

"It's not one-size-fits-all," Chertudi said. "It has to be broad and tailored."

So far the city as struggled to make it work but Woods said officials are trying to be responsive to the needs of customers. He added that he expects more substantive movement within the next year.

Lately the recycling business has been far from a money-making venture. Klein said the prices for selling recyclable commodities has been "horrible for the last several years."

The price paid for recyclable materials tracks the economy. With the decline in manufacturing, there is less demand for raw materials. Klein said Allied and other recycling programs were actually losing money by having to pay to have recycling processed. With revenues upside down, several programs across the nation folded.

Additionally, the price paid for mixed recycling is less than that for those that are pre-sorted. Boise's mixed recycling is bailed before being sent to recycling recovery centers in Oregon and Washington, where the materials are sorted using an array of technology, before being sent to processing facilities.

"There's an extra layer of labor and transportation," Klein said.

While the value of recyclables has recently begun to increase, she said the recycling program will never fully pay for itself, but there are no plans by either the city or Allied to change the program.

"It's absolutely the right thing to do," Klein said.

The same skyrocketing fuel costs that have drivers carefully mapping their trips has also had a major impact on businesses based on transportation, including Allied Waste. But she said things could have been a lot worse were it not for a move made when Boise switched to the Curb It program.

"Fuel is such a large component of our expenses," said Klein.

While the company still uses some diesel trucks in Canyon County, it purchased 12 compressed natural gas-powered trucks as part of its contract with Boise, and since then has been slowly replacing its fleet with CNG trucks. Klein said that within the next three to five years, the entire fleet of 52 trucks will be run on CNG.

The fuel savings in the past several years--as well as the fact that the new trucks run both quieter and cleaner--have been marked. CNG costs between $1.50 and $2 per gallon equivalent, compared with costs of more than $4 per gallon for diesel. The savings to the company have been reflected in the city's ability to avoid a price increase to customers.

"It was a huge risk," Chertudi said of the investment in CNG trucks. "No community had [CNG trucks] with the weather and elevation we do ... it was a critical component."

In an effort to continue the trend, Allied will open two public CNG stations on Thursday, June 30--one at the Allied Boise offices in West Boise and the other in Nampa.

"Now, it's the chicken or egg situation," Klein said. First the infrastructure had to be in place before demand for CNG followed.

The stations will sell CNG at roughly cost to the public, which will be less than $1.50 per gallon equivalent, depending on the final costs of the infrastructure, Klein said. Already, Klein said more people have been either buying CNG cars or bringing them in from areas with established programs. Additionally, Valley Ride has ordered new CNG buses for Canyon County.

The greatest lingering issue facing city officials is what to do with glass.

BW broke the story in October 2010 that a literal mountain of glass had been building up south of town from glass residents had dropped off in recycling bins across the community (BW, News, "The Glass Ceiling," Oct. 20, 2010). Roughly 60,000 cubic yards of glass had built up, with no end in sight and no purpose in mind. The Ada County Highway District, which owns the land under the mountain, put an end to the arrangement late last year and the city scrambled for a solution.

The city was able to buy a used glass-crusher from Mountain Home Air Force Base, paying just $250 for the piece of equipment valued at roughly $20,000.

Tests have been ongoing, and Boise-based Environmental Abrasives, a subsidiary of Nelson Construction, is working with the city to use the discarded glass by grinding it into a super-fine powder that can be used for industrial cleaning and sandblasting.

Chertudi said the company has assured city officials that it cannot only use all incoming glass but will be able to work down the massive pile of existing glass.

The city is also working with a start-up company, Idaho Glass Recycling, that plans to salvage wine bottles by running them through an industrial washing process and selling them back to wineries to reuse.

But the most anticipated piece of the glass puzzle is curbside recycling, something that has been long requested in the community. City officials have been analyzing the issue for years but only recently have come up with a plan to start offering the service as early as this fall. The pressure is on to iron out the details since Boise Mayor Dave Bieter announced the plan at his State of the City address in mid-May.

Chertudi said details will be finalized this summer, and residents will have their first chance to sign up for the program after June 15.

Officials are careful to stress that curbside glass recycling will be a voluntary program, for which participants will pay roughly $10 per month for the dedicated truck and driver required to pick up glass across the city. Glass recycling will be a self-supporting program, and it will be reevaluated every year to ensure that it is in fact paying for itself.

City officials are aware that the price tag may limit the amount of participation.

Two surveys conducted by the city showed that roughly 30 percent of customers would be willing to pay for some form of curbside glass recycling, but that number drops as the price of the service increases. Because of that, the city is designing its program around the assumption that only 3 percent to 5 percent of customers will participate. If more residents sign up for glass recycling, Chertudi said the city would be able to expand the program.

She added that the city hopes to work closely with area bars and restaurants--which tend to use the most glass waste--to collect glass directly at the source.

For those who choose not to participate in the glass recycling program, the city will maintain public glass drop-off sites, although the number of those locations may be cut down. In addition to boosting recycling numbers, Woods said by keeping more glass out of the trash, the weight of material headed to the landfill will be reduced.

"It's absolutely been worth it," Woods said of the push to start the glass recycling program.

Chertudi--whose knowledge of the Curb It program is nearly encyclopedic--gets philosophical when asked about the future of recycling in the Treasure Valley.

"The long-term goal is to create a community that is not wasteful and values all our resources," she said. "We have to create that value, that ethic. What can we do to help people reduce waste and make good choices?

"We still have a lot of challenges," she said.

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