It's far too easy to dismiss recycling centers as just another place our trash ends up. Rather, our trash is a commodity. When recycled properly, trash can be sold, which makes money for Blaine County and decreases trash in the regional landfill. Recycling also supports jobs and industries, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, conserves natural resources and energy, is supported in the valley and is cost effective compared to other waste disposal methods. But there are rules.
What can we recycle, why should we, and what happens to recycled items once we do?
The Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Center is a good source for information on all things recyclable. One of the organizations main focuses is to increase awareness about consumption and reuse of resources.
"We look to facilitate solutions to the way we handle our waste," ERC Executive Director Craig Barry said. "We meet with the players—Southern Idaho Solid Waste, local and county governments, private sectors and other nonprofit groups."
The items that are recyclable locally are plastic bottles, glass, aluminum, cardboard, magazines, office paper and newspaper. Except for the plastics, it's all very straight forward.
"There's a whole world of plastics out there," Barry said. "It's a highly engineered product."
The Blaine County Resource Recovery Center in Ohio Gulch, funded by Blaine County and managed by Southern Idaho Solid Waste, accepts only threaded-neck plastic bottles without tops. Yogurt-type tubs, fruit containers and anything that contained a toxic fluid are not recyclable at this center.
Not all plastics are the same. Therefore, it's imperative to only put the right items in the blue recycling bins used in the valley, and just as imperative to separate the items. Barry's recommendation is to place several paper bags into the blue bin. One could be used for flattened molded plastics with a numeral 1 or 2 inside the recycling logo, one for glass, one for aluminum, one for newspaper and one for magazines.
"We have to recycle right," Barry said. "I applaud the sentiment when everything is dumped in, but it's part of a larger system. You can begin the process in the grocery store by choosing products that are recyclable in the first place, or by buying in bulk. We have issues with contamination all the time from improper recycling. I would recommend people err on the side of constraint. When in doubt, throw it out."
These comments are not to suggest that Barry is flippant about the issue. The fact is there isn't enough manpower to sort each load of recyclable items to find and remove items that can't be recycled. Therefore, often an entire load might become trash. It's a problem with which he's wrestling.
"To be honest, it's tough for us to do it all," he said. "We're in a small rural community, but this is probably the best in the state. We're possibly seven years behind the progress of large communities, which have material sorters (known as MERFS). We're still trying to fine tune things and, of course, we'd like to see more participation."
Reasons cited by reluctant valley residents are that it's time consuming, makes no difference and recycling options differ from town to town. It can be confusing and inconsistent, although the ERC intends to post very clear instructions on its Web site soon.
The ideal is something like what is done in Hailey, which Barry said has the best recycling program in the valley. "It's 'Pay as you Throw' programming. You are charged by the waste you generate. It's very hard to find out by weight, so we estimate by volume. The bigger your (trash) bin, the more you are charged, the smaller, you pay less. It's a direct incentive to reduce waste and recycle as much as you can."
There is also a "bag and tag" policy in which extra trash can be set out in Hailey, with a purchased tag attached. "Again it's true to the 'Pay as you Throw' idea," Barry continued. "What these programs show is the maximum returns for recycling. When you implement these and offer recycling for free, people have a tendency to maximize recycling and limit trash. People need to know they can save money by downsizing containers and recycling properly."
Sun Valley is the worst city in the valley for progressive recycling policies, Barry added. "The pricing structure is definitely screwy." They have a flat fee, which offers no incentive to recycle and reduce waste. Many residents simply don't do it since it's a separate charge.
"A lot of what we're doing is in response to new products out there in the recycling industry," Barry said. "A comprehensive solid waste program for the whole county would make the most sense. We're moving in the right direction."
In fact, Blaine County has put into its new budget new equipment and construction to update the facilities at Ohio Gulch.
"People just need more incentive to recycle," Barry added. "And to deal with it more holistically."
For instance, glass is more costly to recycle but can be reused right here in the valley, rather than having it trucked 90 miles away to Milner Butte in Cassia County to a landfill, where it's completely inert. But glass can be crushed and used as aggregate for drain fill, Barry said. "There were 600 tons of crushed glass from Ohio Gulch used as road-bed matter (when several miles of Highway 75 was widened a few years ago).
"The beneficial uses are for road bed, drainage and stabilizing material. There's no leeching at the Resource Recovery Center, which is designed to protect the groundwater."
Cardboard and paper products are baled at the center and sold to recycling brokers, as are aluminum and plastics.
At the center in Ohio Gulch, Southern Idaho Solid Waste employee Brett Gelskey collects the plastics and paper products from the recycling trucks as they arrive. He then takes cartons full of material and feeds it into the baler. It takes an hour to produce one dense cardboard bale and much less time for newspaper.
A new baler would change his routine considerably, he said. After bales are complete, they are sent via what would be otherwise empty trucks making return trips—a process known as backhauling—to delivery points in Boise and Idaho Falls. There, brokers buy the material.
"The market is flexible," Barry said. "Some years are better than others."
The figures, according to Southern Idaho Solid Waste, show that on average over the past seven years it costs $48 per ton to remove and dump trash in landfills. At the same time, it costs on average $3.90 to dispose of recycled product through a broker.
On average, the county and taxpayers save anywhere from $26,000 to $88,000 a year by reducing the cost of trash disposal.
"Recycling is here to stay," Barry said. "Whether people like it or not. It's a lot more cost effective than merely dumping. This is an important part of making us a sustainable community. By doing this we're doing our part to conserve the larger environment in which we live."