Boise's New Recycling Program Asks Consumers To Help Solve A Global Problem

May 18, 2018

When China put a ban on plastics at the beginning of the year, it sent shockwaves through the global recycling market. Cities across Idaho and the country have been struggling to find a new use for their recycled material.

In Boise, city leaders were already working on a solution to the problem. But their solution means some big behavioral shifts for Boiseans like Laura Skinner.

On a recent spring morning, Skinner places her reusable tote bags in her shopping cart, as she navigates the grocery aisles at Walmart.

When she gets to the dairy section, she picks up some yogurt and looks at the number on the bottom to see if it can be recycled.

“The lids I’m fairly certain are foil, then the bottoms are 6," says Skinner. "So [the bottoms] go in the orange bag."

Skinner is an avid recycler, but she admits she’s gotten complacent in recent years after Boise started its mixed recycling program in 2008. When she learned that much of the plastic she had been putting into her blue cart was ending up in the landfill, it kept her up at night. 

Laura Skinner takes a picture of a sour cream package at the grocery store before purchasing it; she'll send the photo to the City of Boise to ask if the package can be recycled.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

Now, she says she’s a lot more conscious of her choices.

“I feel like I make better choices when I know what’s going on.”

'Wishful Recycling' Gone Bad

Later in the afternoon, on the other side of town at Western Recycling, general manager Rick Gillihan watches as a mix of plastics, glass, paper and even metal pile up on the floor. It’s all trash – trash that well-intentioned Boiseans thought could be recycled.

“This would be from probably 10:00 a.m.," says Gillihan. "We fill this bunker twice a day with trash.”

He says about 12 percent of the material that gets trucked to the facility is not recyclable and instead gets taken to the landfill after going through an expensive sorting process.

“It’s incredible how much contamination is in the material,” he says.

Employees at Western Recycling (top of image) sort through what can -- and can't -- be recycled at the Boise facility. General Manager Rick Gillhan says this pile will get taken to the landfill twice a day due to "wishful recycling."
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

But Gillhan is hopeful he’ll see trash decline in the coming months, as the city puts much of the responsibility of sorting and decontaminating recyclables back onto the consumer. Earlier this month, the city began rolling out its new orange bag program – which comes with strict rules about which plastics can be recycled.

“We have a pretty complex change here but [it's] something that is allowing more material to be recovered,” says Haley Falconer with the City of Boise.

"We have a pretty complex change here but [its] something that is allowing more material to be recovered." - Haley Falconer

She says they learned of the orange bag program last summer, about six months before the China ban went into effect. They got a $50,000 grant from Hefty brands and identified Renewlogy, a Salt Lake City company, that turns hard-to-recycle plastics into diesel fuel. 

But beyond teaching Boiseans what items can go in which bins, Falconer says the city hopes to spur a conversation about the three Rs.  

“Right now we’re heavily focused on protecting recycling because that is an important piece of this – but reducing what we use, reusing what we have are also important.”

According to Priyanka Bakaya, that’s exactly the kind of conversation her company hopes to inspire. Bakaya is the founder and CEO of Renewlogy, and decided several years ago to find a second-use for consumer plastic when she learned that only 10 percent around the world actually gets recycled.

“I had assumed that this material ends up becoming new plastics," says Bakaya. "But the truth is: A very, very small amount is able to be handled through the mechanical recycling process.”

Bakaya says by finding a regional second-use for plastics, Renewlogy is doing what it can to battle the global issue.

We’ve all seen those images: landfills in Asia where foreign plastic is openly burned or sea creatures that are strangled or sliced open by plastic dumped in oceans. Bakaya says by finding a regional second-use for plastics, Renewlogy is doing what it can to battle the global issue.

“Since plastic comes from fuel, when you chemically convert the plastic back to its basic molecules, you can make new fuels.”

Although diesel does create emissions, Bayaka says they’re offsetting the fuel that would be taken from the ground and used solely as diesel.

Thinking Globally, Acting Regionally

Laura Skinner is back at home in southeast Boise, putting away her groceries, including some after-school snacks for her daughter.

She says she’s excited by the orange bag program – but is worried about how much of a difference it will actually make.  

Still, Skinner thinks the city is being transparent about where her plastic is going – and is thankful for the opportunity to audit her habits.

“It kind of gives me hope that if the public knows what the problem is, then we can all kind of work together.”

The first truckload of Boise’s orange bags is expected to arrive at Renewlogy’s Salt Lake City facility in June.

A Chobani yogurt containers comes loose from an orange bag. Washed and dried yogurt containers can go in the orange bag, and will be turned into diesel fuel at Renewlogy in Salt Lake City.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

Have a specific question about what can be recycled in Boise? Email a photo or the description of the item to reporter Frankie Barnhill: frankiebarnhill[at]boisestate.edu.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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