Thanks to Ameerah Bader for these wonderful illustrations —- Insta account @proudairforcedad
There has been a lot of talk about plastics lately. Recently, many downtown Boise food and beverage establishments have announced that they’re going strawless – or at least going straw upon request. Also, if you live in Boise City and are a CurbIt Recycling subscriber, you may have found an unusual package at your door in the last few months – a big roll of orange Hefty® bags and a lot of literature about, you guessed it, plastics. If you’re not an avid follower of Waste and Recycling News like I am, you might be wondering what the big fuss is about.
Since the 1980’s, China has been the world’s largest trash and recyclables importer. Due to decades of increasing product contamination (more on this in a moment) and extensive environmental pollution, the Chinese government announced last summer that it would be banning 24 kinds of solid waste, including mixed paper and plastics for import beginning January 1, 2018.
Let’s return to that term, “contamination”. What does that mean? For our purposes, contamination can refer to a dirty product – think of that unrinsed yogurt container sullying up the mixed paper in the blue bin – or, when something ends up in a recycling cart that shouldn’t be there – that load becomes “contaminated”. Currently, nearly 20% of everything put in blue recycling carts isn’t recyclable and is sent to the landfill as trash. Contamination increases labor costs at the sorting facility because workers have to remove the unwanted materials and send them to the landfill. A Northwest Waste Management executive said he had seen everything from Christmas lights to animal carcasses to artillery shells come through the company’s recycling facilities. “Most of our facilities get a bowling ball every day or two,” he said.
Previously, the U.S. exported approximately one-third of our recycling, with half destined for China. Now, the new ban has sent the waste and recycling trades into chaos as countries scramble to find new markets for their once profitable waste. Recycling programs across the world are having to heavily cut back on what can be accepted, resulting in growing piles of former recyclables with no destination. Many communities are facing the fact that, with no comparable markets or alternatives, these piles will soon be landfill bound.
The City of Boise, facing this dilemma, worked to find an innovative alternative to the landfill. This resulted in the City of Boise being selected as one of two communities in the entire U.S. to receive a grant to participate in the Hefty® EnergyBag™ Program. The program utilizes a brand new plastics-to-fuel process run by a company named Renewlogy, based out of Salt Lake City. The technology converts petroleum-based plastics (#’s 4-7) into valuable fuels such as diesel. One ton of plastics produces 6 barrels or 252 gallons of diesel. The process is essentially emission free and can process 10 tons of waste per day. For now, the program only applies to residential subscribers in Boise but other Treasure Valley communities are interested and a commercial Boise program will be unveiled later this year.
Ok, but why the bag? Short answer, it is the easiest solution to a complex challenge. Plus it helps cut down on contamination – the bag is the most cost-effective way to keep the two recycling streams separate, without having to add another cart into the mix.
So what does that mean for us at home? Let’s start with what’s NOT changing. Clean plastic jugs and bottles labeled 1 and 2, paper, cardboard, aluminum, and tin can all still go straight into your blue cart, same as before. These items still have viable markets and will get sent to the municipal facilities for sorting and processing. Remember, plastic bags – other than your Hefty® EnergyBag™ – are not (and never have been) allowed in the blue bins! They damage the sorting equipment and can contaminate an entire load of otherwise good recyclables, sending them to the landfill.
Where the real difference lies is that with the orange bags we can now recycle a whole lot MORE plastics than we could before! In addition to clean, 4-7 labeled plastics we can now recycle styrofoam, juice pouches, plastic utensils, bags, films, bubble wrap, chip bags, candy wrappers, and even empty toothpaste and lotion tubes! Now all those energy bar wrappers will have a whole new glamorous life as diesel fuel! When your orange bag is all filled up, tie it up tight and throw it into your blue bin. Once collected, the Hefty® EnergyBags™ will get separated out and sent to Salt Lake City.
Plastics that CANNOT be recycled anywhere ever are ALL plastic water bottles and plastic hinged lid or clamshell containers (usually given as a to-go container or as a vessel for berries or other produce at the grocery store). Even though they may say they’re a 1 or 2, these plastics are so thin, they smash down and clog the machinery during processing. Additionally, wax coated cartons, containers, or cups (think to-go cups or boxes, frozen dinners, or juice and dairy cartons) cannot be recycled as well as PVC, vinyl or #3 plastic. Again, these items can contaminate otherwise useful recyclables, sealing their fate to the landfill. They should always go directly in the trash. Remember, when in doubt, throw it out! Or just try a reusable water bottle and some to go containers from home and try to cut down your consumption of plastics!
And that’s it! Now you’re a CurbIt pro! If you do have more questions, Boise City’s CurbIt website has an extensive list of items that can go into the orange bag, as well as a printable reference chart, a collection of frequently asked questions, and other helpful links. If you’re still stumped or just want to chat Waste Management, click here and send me an email!
One last thing; while the ban on recyclables has caused serious waves around the world and considerable frustration at home, it has provided us with an opportunity to come up with innovative solutions that grow our economy and benefit our citizens here in the US. It’s important to keep in mind how fortunate we are to have found a domestic, regional solution to a global problem. This program is keeping literal tons of plastic out of our landfill and giving them a new life.