TWIN FALLS — Across the nation, it may seem like consumers are feeding a broken machine.
A large amount of contamination being sent into the recycle stream from U.S. consumers has resulted in China — a major buyer of recyclables — restricting what it’s accepting. In response, recycling costs have risen and some recyclables are being sent to a landfill rather than overseas.
In Twin Falls, the City Council voted to raise sanitation rates for customers in order to help cover the costs of recycling. And when recycling costs exceed $100 a ton — as they have for the past several months — what’s been collected goes straight to the landfill.
“We are nowhere near the control lever,” Twin Falls Utility Billing Supervisor Bill Baxter said. “We’re feeding the machine, and that costs money. If people are really wanting to make sure their stuff is getting recycled, you might want to start separating your stuff and taking it to Magic Valley Recycling.”
But the situation is far from hopeless — and it isn’t going to last forever, Baxter said. So instead of giving up on recycling, there are a few things he recommends doing first. It’s all back to basics: reduce, reuse, recycle.
The Times-News asked local experts, businesses and governments both in and outside the Magic Valley to find out what solutions they had for diverting waste from the landfill.
At Twin Beans Coffee, Paul Graff’s employees wanted the business to be more environmentally friendly. The coffee shop already uses organic ingredients whenever possible, but reducing waste was another topic of concern.
So Graff looked into how the business could do that. About a month ago, the shop began serving all in-house, 16-ounce iced drinks in glasses — rather than disposable plastic cups. And the 12-ounce plastic cups for water were replaced with washable, reusable cups.
“It was a lot of 12-ounce cups that would just get tossed,” Graff said. “It’s amazing how much water people go through.”
And the business was paying for about one box of disposable cups a week — at $12 a box.
The trade-off, of course, is some additional labor to wash those cups — as well as increased water use. There’s also more risk of breakage with glass, Graff said.
“It’s still less than we were spending on disposable cups,” he said. “It’s probably been a net win for us.”
The business has been using its existing supply of glasses, but Graff anticipates he will need to order more.
For individual consumers, reducing waste begins in the grocery store aisle. Instead of buying new soap pumps every time you get soap, consider buying the jug and refilling them, Baxter said. Or consider buying refillable water bottles instead of disposable ones.
“It’s a conscious thing,” Baxter said.
Tammi Eiguren, part-owner of Magic Valley Recycling, reminds people that the business can recycle only No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles; no other plastic is accepted. So if you are buying a bottled beverage, look at the bottom first.
To encourage residents to toss out less waste, the city of Twin Falls began a pilot program in certain neighborhoods, allowing them to purchase smaller 35-gallon and 65-gallon garbage carts at a lower rate. Baxter said Twin Falls started with neighborhoods that were already doing well with recycling.
“We already knew these were those who would recycle as much as they could, whenever they could,” he said.
Although Baxter did not know whether those neighborhood have thrown out less waste as a result of the program, the city has decided to expand the program to cover the part of Twin Falls from the western boundary to Blue Lakes Boulevard, and from North College Road to the northern boundary.
At Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, building materials and furnishings are welcome — either new or used. Over the past 11 years, the local store has sold an estimated 2.8 million pounds of home improvement goods — many of which would otherwise have gone into a landfill.
“We’ve doubled in size four times,” said Linda Fleming, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Magic Valley.
The ReStore is an example of reusing in one of its simplest forms — and it also raises money for the nonprofit to build no-interest homes for residents in need. People can take their old sinks, leftover paint, light fixtures, ceiling fans, doors — and even toilets — to the store at 639 Eastland Drive S. from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Businesses from Sun Valley to Burley can also get their new or used items picked up on Thursdays and Fridays.
Although similar to a thrift store, the ReStore focuses only on home improvement items, many of which won’t be accepted by thrift stores. Whatever the ReStore can’t sell — such as some scrap metals and faucets — it recycles.
“We’re all about recycling as much as possible, but mostly we like to sell it all on the floor,” Fleming said.
With the advent of Pinterest and a renewed interest in restoring things, the ReStore has also become “a crafter’s paradise,” she said.
Jenna Harder, a local artist, began painting a year ago. That quickly turned into sculpting and a quest to find unique things and incorporate them into her works. Harder uses the ReStore, local thrift stores, and even things she finds around her own home.
“I always love the idea of taking something that’s discarded or unwanted and making it into something new,” she said.
This concept has spilled into other areas of her life. Instead of going to the store for a new canvas or art supplies, Harder thinks about what she already has or can get for cheaper at a thrift store. Even with gardening — another hobby of hers — she’s begun to find ways to reuse items by reclaiming things or buying them used.
“You start to see potential all over,” she said.
The cities of Boise and Meridian saw the writing on the wall last year. With China’s new policies on the horizon, they knew they would need to step up homeowner education about contamination — when people put dirty or unrecyclable items into recycling bins. Especially as the rules about what could be recycled were changing.
So they ramped up their efforts. Boise’s community engagement department used Facebook Live events and open houses to answer residents’ questions. The city also sent out mailers and refrigerator cards, city spokesman Mike Journee said.
In Meridian, a Republic Services employee came out to do a live demo during one of the city’s quarterly town hall meetings.
“We basically had him go through what you can and can’t recycle, based on products in front of him,” Meridian city spokeswoman Kaycee Emery said.
The January town hall had extremely high turnout, and the city decided to put together an FAQ page on its website.
“We were essentially educating while the changes were happening,” Emery said.
But Boise knew that, with the recycling market how it was, the city also needed to find an alternative for residents to divert waste from the landfill. The city’s recycling program, Journee said, is extremely successful, with a 98 percent participation rate.
So the public works department in Boise started to look outside the box, and found a solution in a bright orange bag.
Boise residents can now fill Hefty EnergyBags with items that typically can’t be recycled — such as plastic juice pouches, plastic dinnerware and foam egg cartons. Since March, the stuffed bags could be placed into recycling bins for pickup. Soon, they’ll be shipped to Renewlogy, a Salt Lake City plant that reverses the process that creates plastics to convert them into a synthetic fuel.
“We sent the orange bags out to every household in the city,” Journee said.
While residents have a one-year supply of bags, Boise expects to continue the program for years to come.
“This is what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re moving forward with it.”
The bags will be paid for through a private grant as well as the revenue anticipated from the sale of those plastics.
Meridian is also jumping on the orange-bag bandwagon. Beginning in April, the city joined forces with Boise for a one-year program that’s available to 1,500 residents. Its orange bags, however, were paid for through another fund where the city’s contractor has shared the revenue from recyclables.
In Twin Falls, the solution has been focused entirely around homeowner education: Don’t bag your recyclables, clean them up, know what can be recycled and don’t give up. If homeowners can stop contamination at the bin, as soon as the market gets better, Twin Falls will have a product worth selling, Baxter said.
As of late May, recycling out of Twin Falls cost $170 per ton.
“The sorting facility in Boise is starting to charge a $7.50 per ton contamination charge,” Baxter said.
And contamination is really at the core of why prices went up so much. It’s a vicious cycle: the more people contaminate, the worse prices become, the more recyclables get dumped.
“We’ve pooped in our sandbox,” Baxter said.
At Magic Valley Recycling, most of what can be recycled hasn’t changed, Eiguren said. Everything has to be sorted when it’s brought in because Magic Valley Recycling, unlike the city, doesn’t hire another center to sort it.
To encourage compliance, signage outside each bin clearly labels what’s OK and what isn’t. But some residents are still doing it wrong, tossing in old children’s swimming pools and even bicycles.
“Our signs just keep getting bigger,” Eiguren said.
Boise, too, is starting to look at its contamination rate, though early analysis shows the city is “generally pleased” with residents’ compliance, Journee said.
“Those that are choosing to participate are all-in,” he said.
The city is paying for an audit now, which will tell it what message residents still need to hear about contamination.
Twin Falls plans to ramp up its website next month, city spokesman Joshua Palmer said. The new website will make it easier for residents to access information about recycling. The city contracts its waste and recycling services through PSI Environmental Systems.
“This is how we preserve the world we live in,” Baxter said. “No, it’s not convenient. Yes, it is a pain. What are our options?”