The Big Crush, Boise's Possible Solution to the Mountain of Glass

The Glass Ceiling, Part Two


No good deed goes unpunished. In its effort to divert glass away from landfills, Boise has created a Foothills-sized predicament.

But Megan Kershner, the city's solid waste program coordinator remains optimistic.

"Boise's taking the lead on this," said Kershner. "I know for a fact that people from Meridian, Nampa and Caldwell drive here just to drop off their used bottles at our collection sites. It's because no one else has a glass recycling program."

It is Kershner's job to oversee 17 glass drop-off sites at fire stations and retail and grocery parking lots across Boise. In addition to those, 13 more private glass collection dumpsters sit outside Boise restaurants and taverns. They all fill up fast. The newest public location, outside of Albertsons on Vista Ave., now reaches capacity on a weekly basis.

"It's a good thing," said Kershner of glass recycling while escorting a load out to property owned by the Ada County Highway District south of Boise.

Maybe too good. Two 4-year-old mountains of glass now stand south of Boise, and officials with the highway district aren't too happy about it (BW, News, "The Glass Ceiling," Oct. 27, 2010).

"You know anybody who needs some bottles?" joked Jim Michaelson, ACHD's maintenance superintendent.

About seven years ago, ACHD and Boise officials agreed that the city could bring its glass to the highway district, where it would be ground up and used as an aggregate for road construction.

"Bad idea," Michaelson told BW from his ACHD office. "We did it as a trial basis, and there was never a formal agreement."

But glass hasn't been crushed there, or anywhere in Idaho, for nearly four years. The old crusher at ACHD broke down and was never replaced.

"We haven't been building many roads, and when we do, we usually subcontract the job out," said Michaelson.

Michaelson looked out on the acres of glass and compared the scene to the size of two football fields, each about 30 feet high. The city received a formal communication from ACHD, saying it could no longer send its glass to the South Boise location. And that was in August.

"They gave us some time to come up with an alternative," said Paul Woods, manager of the city's Environmental Division, part of Boise's Public Works Department. "We've asked Allied Waste [Boise's trash hauler] to put together a plan where we could offer residential curbside glass collection."

Such a big change to Boise's trash program would be by subscription only.

"They're going to give us some suggested rates, but I wouldn't be surprised if it comes to about $10 more a month," said Woods.

It's a tough sell, but Woods is convinced that the more Boiseans who subscribe, the more the cost would gradually decrease.

"In all of our surveys, almost everyone says, 'Yes, I want curbside glass recycling.' But almost as many people say, 'No, I don't want to pay anything more,'" conceded Woods.

So what would subscribers be paying for?

"Right now, we'd have to haul all of the glass to crushing companies in Portland, [Ore.], or Salt Lake City," said Woods, shaking his head. "Not one company in Idaho does anything with mass amounts of used glass."

Boise's self-described trash czarina, Catherine Chertudi who is the city's environmental programs manager, said the city has some new ideas about how to solve the problem.

"For instance, we're getting a new glass crusher," said Chertudi. "Well, maybe not new, but it's pretty exciting. Now we just have to convince someone to get into the glass crushing business."

Chertudi said Boise recently purchased an used glass crusher from Mountain Home Air Force Base. The base had been misusing the equipment to crush spent ammunition shell casings. Through the federal surplus system, Boise bid for the equipment and easily won.

"I think the official description is 'screaming good deal,'" laughed Kershner.

She's right. New, the equipment is worth close to $500,000 and though its current value is at least $20,000, the city of Boise paid only $250. There weren't any other bidders.

The crusher is being tested by Environmental Abrasives, a 10-year-old subsidiary of Boise-based Nelson Construction.

"We're all quietly praying," said Kershner. "In a perfect world, we would collect the glass, send it to Environmental Abrasives, and they could turn it into a marketable industrial product."

But Kershner cautions not to look for a profit for the city.

"Boise wants to recycle glass because it's the right thing to do, not because it's going to make us any money. When the economy bottomed out, a lot of cities across the nation ended their recycling programs. Not just pieces of it but recycling altogether. For this city to keep this program going, and also look for new alternatives, well that's commitment."