The Paper Chase: Why Boise Officials Need to 'Buy Time' to Solve Our Paper Problem

"This is a seismic shift."


Six hundred and fifty tons. That's how much mixed paper Boise residents and businesses send to Western Recycling each month. Blue whales, the largest animal on Earth, can weigh around 200 tons, which means Boiseans send the equivalent of three-and-a-half whales worth of paper to be recycled each month.

But wait. It gets worse.

New regulations from China have made it nearly impossible for Boise to send its paper there for recycling, leaving the city in a major jam. Unlike aluminum or plastic recycling, paper has so little value that someone now has to be paid to pick it up in order to keep it out of the Ada County Landfill. Currently, the City of Boise pays nearly $100,000 out of its Solid Waste Fund every month to divert paper from the landfill.

"This is a seismic shift," said Steve Burgos, director of Boise Public Works.

Before the tremor erupts into an earthquake, Burgos needs to buy some time. In the coming days, he and his colleagues will go before Boise City Council with some short-term fixes and long-term solutions.

"First, we can't lose sight of how far we've come in this city, and the path that we don't want to stray from," Burgos added.

Some may think the service has been around for much longer, but it was as recently as 2009 that recycling bins were first rolled out to households. The easy, no-sort recycling has resulted in an impressive 98-percent participation rate among Boise residents. A revamped glass recycling program followed in 2012, which repurposes tons of discarded bottles and jars each month courtesy of a partnership with Environmental Abrasives. In 2017, the city began a curbside composting program, which in less than a year has ramped up to a 96-percent residential participation rate. Earlier this year, Boise officials announced they would soon launch an ambitious plastics recycling program in response to China's refusal to take many U.S. plastics. That effort will launch in April, when residents will receive "energy bags" for collecting used plastics.

"The good news is that through changed behavior and reduced costs, those programs were keeping us on track to our biggest goal—the possibility of shifting to every-other-week pickup of trash, as early as the year 2020," said Burgos.

Then the Chinese government struck again, notifying the World Trade Organization that, effective January, it would no longer accept materials contaminated any more than 0.5 percent. So-called "contaminated" paper is paper that is mixed with plastics or films. Considering most cities, like Boise, that offer no-sort recycling have tons of "contaminants" mixed with paper, 0.5 percent is a near-impossible target. Even the most aggressive efforts from professional recycling companies haven't been able to meet China's new standard, according to Burgos.

"We think we've already addressed the issue of China not taking our plastics with the 'energy bag' program which we've just announced," said Haley Falconer, environmental division senior manager at Public Works. "But this paper challenge is much, much bigger."

Someone not familiar with recycling paper, either domestic or overseas, might jump to the conclusion: If China doesn't want our paper, why don't we find someone in the U.S. who does? Complicating the dilemma is the fact that the current value of paper for recycling or repurposing is so low that the city would have to pay companies to take the paper. In other words, the expense of sorting and transporting all of that paper is significantly higher than the paper itself. As of this week, the city is shelling out $100,000 per month to those companies to take Boise's paper.

Which begs an unfortunate question: Why not send the paper to the Ada County landfill?

"Citizens of Boise remind us, again and again, that we're on the right path toward sustainability. Our programs of recycling and diversion away from the landfill are too popular for us to reverse direction," said Burgos. "Solving this paper dilemma is bigger than all of us, but I'm confident."

Here are some of the ideas on the table:

  • Deferring/restructuring payments totaling $1.5 million for the remediation of the site of Esther Simplot Park which, ironically, was discovered to be contaminated with waste.
  • A possible hike, somewhere around $2, of monthly trash/sewer fees paid by Boise residents.
  • Exploring new technology which would "clean up" Boise's stream of contaminated mixed paper.

"When it comes to new technology, there's something called 'optical sorting,'" said Burgos, explaining a system that uses optics similar to facial recognition software, "but in this case, it looks at trash. Picture trash coming down a giant conveyer built. There's a huge piece of equipment that scans the trash and identifies the contaminated plastics or other things that shouldn't be with the paper. Then, further down the belt, little air puffers blast the identified contaminants away from the paper. It's pretty amazing."

Something "amazing" is exactly what Burgos and his team need to solve the city's long-term paper problem. In the short term, all Burgos really needs is some time.