TWIN FALLS — Scott Wilson is mindful to only place approved materials into his recycling bin provided by the city.
It’s important to make a diligent effort at the individual level, Wilson said, adding he’s been recycling since he was a Boy Scout in the 1970s.
“I’m very careful to make sure things aren’t dirty,” he said. “I’ve got to do what I know is right.”
But all of his properly recycled materials could end up in the landfill if just one resident fills their container with something other than recycling.
Twin Falls and communities across the country are reducing or ending their recycling programs as contamination makes them more expensive.
Twin Falls City Council recently approved changing the city’s recycling program to no longer include mixed paper and plastic and instead collect only aluminum, cardboard and tin. It’s part of an initiative to improve efficiency and save money in an increasingly expensive industry.
The program changes begin Oct. 1 with adoption of next year's budget, though the city recommends residents start forming new habits now.
The city once profited from recycling when the program first started in 2005. But in 2013, revenues that previously offset the cost of the process shrunk to break even and below, and the city has since paid to recycle.
The current recycling program will cost the city about $180,000 in 2019.
Council members tried to combat the growing cost of the program in March 2018 when they set a cap on how much the city would pay to recycle at $100 per ton of materials. But the cost soon exceeded that cap and about 1,057 tons of recyclables were sent to the landfill in 2018.
The council raised the cap to $175 per ton in October, and while the rate currently hovers just below that, the city estimated the cost to recycle could eclipse $189 per ton without changes to the program.
Residents would have paid for the increase through their utility bills had council members not voted to reduce the program.
Twin Falls employs a single-stream recycling system that allows residents to place all recyclables into one curbside container.
The convenience of the system increases participation and the potential amount of materials available, but it also breeds the contamination that’s contributing to increased processing costs, said Ben Jarvis of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
“It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword,” Jarvis said.
Single stream a part of the reason that the third largest component, or about 11%, of the city’s recycle stream ends up as trash.
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Some of the trash found in bins is egregious, like motor oil or grass clippings, said city spokesman Josh Palmer. But most of it is from residents who misunderstand which items can actually be recycled.
They might put in the wrong type of plastic or a greasy pizza box or wet cans, Palmer said.
“They’re well intentioned, but in the end it actually does more damage,” he said.
Excessive trash makes sorting materials harder and more expensive. It also dilutes the total amount of recyclable materials, and brings down recovery costs.
The city pays a company in Boise about $90 a ton for sorting, and that’s after it pays about $70 per ton get the materials to the facility.
It doesn’t make sense to pay those processing fees to send material to the Ada County Landfill, said Utility Billing Supervisor Bill Baxter.
“Contamination is the world’s biggest issue with recycling the useful recyclables,” Baxter said. “People got to pay more attention.”
FiveThirtyEight reported the single-stream system — despite collecting large quantities of material — ultimately cost the most and recycled the least. The website estimated 27.2% of recyclables were lost to contamination.
The market that the system’s viability largely depended on disappeared in 2017 when China announced it would no longer buy contaminated materials.
Simplifying the stream
There is still a market out there for recycling, but some materials are more valuable than others, said Lorie Race, the city’s chief financial officer.
Taking plastics and mixed paper out of the stream allows the city to maximize its return by only recycling high-value materials. Changing the program to only collect clean aluminum, cardboard and tin won’t make the program profitable.
“It just reduces the cost,” Race said.
Race estimated the city will pay a net cost of about $108 per ton under the limited program.
The reduced program should help educate people on the right way to recycle, Palmer said.
“It’s a simplified program and I’m hoping that translates to better participation and less contamination in the community,” Palmer said, adding processing costs could go down if the system runs more efficiently.
Residents will still see their utility bills increase 3.25% to $19.04 a month. Palmer called the reduced system a “happy medium” between paying to recycle everything possible and losing the program altogether.
The city is developing a digital marketing campaign to inform residents of proper recycling habits. It also plans to partner with several businesses and individuals to recycle materials not included in the new program.