How Boise’s recycling system is evolving from China’s new policies

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Due to China’s new “National Sword Initiative,” many of the recyclables being produced in the United States are now going to landfills. These changes mean Boise recycling must adapt and minimize the amount of contamination—which occurs when accepted and non-accepted recyclables mix—to 0.5 percent in recycling that China will purchase, according to Catherine Chertudi, environmental programs manager at Boise Public Works.

China officially began enforcing their purchase requirements this year, according to both Chertudi and Rick Gillihan from Western Recycling. Western Recycling, the processor and marketer of recyclable materials from Idaho Falls to Boise, is faced with managing a major contamination problem.

“Throughout 2017, (China) was sending out the message of what their quality requirements were going to be, and they were unsure of an implementation date,” Gillihan said. “I think it was early December of 2017, they came out officially that they are not going to permit anything with a contamination level higher than one half of one percent to be imported into the country. Traditionally, contamination rate has been five to seven percent.”

Both Chertudi and Gillihan commented on how China’s new policies are nearly impossible to meet.

“Currently, the contamination rate on our inbound stream into our sort facility runs between 12 and 13 percent of everything we get is trash,” Gillihan said. “So we’re tasked with cleaning that much material out of the good stuff, and it’s just impossible to get enough of it out in order to meet the one 0.5 percent (requirement).”

According to Chertudi, students and Boise citizens should follow the motto: “If in doubt, leave it out.” By understanding what are and are not accepted materials, contamination is either reduced or prevented.

“We want to be very deliberate about our recycling because the contamination issues are too large and too costly to collect, sort and send these materials off to a location where no one wants them; and they end up being landfilled,” Chertudi said.

Because of a $50,000 grant—awarded by Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics and Keep America Beautiful—a new trademarked and branded program, the Hefty Energy Bag program, will allow Boise residents to reuse hard-to-recycle plastics. Through a chemically recovery process plastics—specifically three through seven grade—can be reused and sold as diesel fuel, according to Chertudi. A resin identification code, a number one through seven inside a triangle on the bottom of plastics, indicates what the plastic is made of.

Through a trial period, Boise residents will receive an orange Hefty Energy Bag sometime in the spring along with a list of instructions. Once participants place the bag in their recycle bin, the bags are collected, sorted and shipped to a facility in Salt Lake City, where the fuel is made.

“(The Hefty Energy Bag program) is something Boise city is going to implement and try to provide an avenue to still recycle or reuse some of the types of plastic China no longer wants,” Gillihan said.

These tough regulations are primarily due to China’s own generation of recycling, which calls for their own recycling system, according to Chertudi. Further, recyclables are just another commodity–something that is traded in a marketplace like any other product. With China being the United State’s primary buyer of recyclables, much of our recycling has no place to go and be reused.

“China (is) our major purchaser for these recycled materials,” Chertudi said. “And having them say, ‘no more plastics three through seven, because we have very limited use for these materials, and we want to get the contamination down in our mixed paper,’ puts an immediate stop for anyone purchasing our material because there is no one else available in the marketplace to produce the quantity that we’re creating–on the west coast in particular.”

By asking questions and discussing ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, individuals can become smart consumers, according to Colin Hickman, Boise Public Works’ communications manager.

“What we could definitely use help in is people (being) engaged in the conversation,” Hickman said. “It’s pretty typical for people to get into their own world of recycling at just their home. But where we can see it is in not only one person’s home, but also from all of BSU and all of Boise; the amount of material is staggering.”

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