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Recycling Risk: How Boise's Trash Gamble Paid Off

Two years later, Boise's Curb It program is a model in the Treasure Valley

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Two years ago, the City of Boise decided there had been enough talking and coaxing: It was time to do something substantive about recycling and trash in the City of Trees.

Partnering with Allied Waste, the company that the city contracts to haul trash, Boise came up with the Curb It program, marking the first time the city had ever felt inspired to create a brand name for trash service other than, well, trash day. The shiny new campaign came complete with educational outreach programs, standardized carts for the entire city, fully automated pickup and, most importantly, no-sort curbside recycling.

City leaders were betting that more residents would step up and recycle if it were made as simple as possible, and those who participated would get a break on their trash bill. After an initial outlay of roughly $4.5 million, city leaders held their collective breath and waited--so did nearly every other municipality in the valley.

Everyone waited to see if Boise would fly or go crashing off a cliff. The program sounded intriguing, but no one wanted to hitch their political clout to what might be a burning wagon.

Initially, reaction from the public was mixed. While many said it was about time the city had a more comprehensive recycling program, others bristled at the idea. In the spring of 2009, calls to the mayor's hotline echoed with claims that there was no way the new containers would hold all the trash and yard waste; that the monstrous cans would never fit in garages; that the elderly could never manage to move them and that the cans would be unsightly.

Others felt the trash program was an attack on personal freedoms.

"I think it's the most communist thing I've ever heard of when they tell us we have to use a garbage can; we're not being asked to use it. I don't approve of it. I don't like it a bit," stated one hotline caller.

"The concept of forcing people to participate in recycling is un-American. Frankly, it's un-American to penalize us to do that," said another.

City officials expected some negative feedback, which is why they undertook a carefully planned, professionally executed marketing strategy that included a user-friendly website (curbit.cityofboise.org), multiple mailings and meetings with neighborhood associations in an effort to slowly and carefully make their case while helping ease residents through the largest change to the city's trash program ever.

Now, not only is Boise's program thriving, but nearly every city in the valley has a similar trash and recycling program.

"There was a lot of pressure, and it is gratifying," said Paul Woods, Boise's environmental division manager, as a smile spread across his face.

City managers have reason to have a little swagger in their step when it comes to recycling. With a roughly 95 percent participation rate among the just fewer than 70,000 households serviced by Allied Waste in Boise­, Woods and others say the program has exceeded all of their expectations.

In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Boise Public Works Department reported that 42 percent of respondents felt trash service was much better, and 67 percent felt that recycling was much better than before the new program started.

Allied Waste also services Eagle, Garden City, Star, outlying areas of Meridian and unincorporated Ada County. While recycling participation isn't quite as high in some of these areas as it is in Boise, participation across Ada County is roughly 90 percent, estimates Rachele Klein, business development manager for Allied Waste in Idaho. Kuna is the only city in Ada County that is not part of the recycling program.

"We're really pleasantly surprised in all the municipalities," Klein said. "New people joined the ranks of recyclers because it was easy and they had the space."

According to Allied Waste, the average home produces 200 pounds of waste per month. Currently, about 35 pounds of that is going into recycling, double the rate before the Curb It program began.

Klein said while those numbers are good, the company and city hope to have that number up to 50 pounds of recycling per month.

Some in the community have raised concerns that some of their neighbors are signing up for recycling for the $4 per month credit on their bill, without actually recycling. While this may happen, officials said they aren't concerned about it occurring on a large scale. Besides, if you're a recycling scofflaw, they know who you are.

"We don't have concerns that people are abusing it," Klein said. "You see nearly all the carts out if you drive up any street. Drivers know which houses recycle and don't." And, she said, they'll eventually flag homes who fail to put out any recycling.

The slightly controversial RFID chips embedded in each trash and recycling cart also give officials the ability to track just how often carts are put out for collection (although city officials stress there is no way the scanners can record what's actually in the carts, despite initial big-brother conspiracy theories that the government was tracking exactly what was in our trash). While only a few trial routes are testing the scanners, the system is slated to be used citywide eventually.

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