Recycling Risk: How Boise's Trash Gamble Paid Off 

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

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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.

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