The Glass Ceiling

Boise's glass recycling program isn't really recycling anything


Paul Woods reached back to the 1970s for a reference to his 21st century problem.

"We're on double secret probation," Woods said with a half-comic, half-serious expression.

Woods, manager of the city's Environmental Division, part of Boise's Public Works Department, quoted the frat-house comedy classic Animal House when describing the growing predicament in which the city of Boise finds itself. Woods oversees the city's issues with solid and hazardous waste, air and water quality, and climate protection, but glass may be his biggest challenge.

You see, Boise has a mountain of glass. Actually, there are two small mountains. But don't plan on taking a tour anytime soon. They're far behind a locked gate south of Boise on land owned by the Ada County Highway District. Imagine two football fields, each filled with glass about 30 feet high--bottles, some broken, some whole--as far as you can see. It's a bizarrely beautiful sight when the sunlight streams across the acres of multi-colored glass. But it's also unsettling a tangible exhibit of consumption and sloth.

The "double-secret probation" that Woods referred to came from a letter to the city from ACHD. Simply put, it told Boise officials to stop hauling glass to ACHD. Woods said the city has since been able to sit down with Highway District officials to ask for some time to craft a plan B or even a plan C.

BW decided to follow the glass and along the way, we learned that good intentions quickly led to a burning problem where flames were fanned by a failing economy and Idaho's dramatic lack of recycling solutions.

"You're catching us at a very interesting time," said Woods. "We can't continue with the status quo."

Every day, scores of Boiseans haul their empty beer, wine and liquor bottles and their empty glass food jars to 17 glass collection sites. Three are at traditional drop-off locations: Boise, Pacific and Western recycling centers. Six are at Boise fire stations. And the city has an agreement to place its most popular collection sites outside of Albertsons grocery stores on State Street and Vista Avenue in Boise. The Vista location has been operating for less than a month but already has reached capacity each week. BW visited the State Street site on a Monday morning, and the trailer-sized dumpster was packed to the top with beer and wine empties.

"We empty each at least twice a week. Some are picked up three times weekly," said Megan Kershner, the city's Solid Waste program coordinator.

"In addition to the 17 public sites, we have 13 private companies who pay for their own glass dumpsters and special collection," Kershner said. "The Cottonwood Grille, Main Street Bistro, the Basque Block, Idaho Shakespeare ... they're to be commended because it's one of the most expensive services we offer. It would certainly be cheaper for them to simply put all their glass in with the garbage."

Each of the containers is transported by Allied Waste (in a special contract with the city) out to the ACHD facility. Seven years ago, ACHD and the city thought that was a pretty good idea. The highway district envisioned crushing the glass and using the material as a sub base aggregate below concrete or asphalt when building roads. The problem is, ACHD really hasn't been building too many roads. And when they do, they usually subcontract with someone else to do the job. The last time any glass was crushed was nearly four years ago.

But the glass keeps coming. Three or four times week, the silence at the ACHD site is broken by a thunderous sound of a clattering cascade of glass being dumped. And then, about once a week an ACHD employee drives a caterpillar tractor over the newly arrived bottles, breaking some in an attempt to compact the space. The glass is then shoved into a pile that quickly becomes a bigger pile, which becomes a hill, which becomes the surreal site it is now. Both city and ACHD officials confirmed at least 60,000 cubic yards of glass is at the location. And ACHD has said enough. In fact, ACHD wants the glass removed. Agency officials don't expect to use it at any point in the future and need the space to mine sand and gravel.

So, what are Boise's options? In part two of our reporting next week, we'll examine how the city has to act fast to find a long-term solution. City officials are considering a curbside glass recycling option. Or possibly partnering with a for-profit firm to crush all of the city's glass into a marketable construction base. Or better yet, a major effort to discourage the purchase of products in glass containers to begin with.

"Reduce, reuse, recycle," said Catherine Chertudi, city hall's so-called czarina of trash. "Before we even talk about reusing or recycling, why can't we just reduce all the glass?"

"We're bringing back wine in a box," smiled Woods.