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Treasure Valley's Stalled Orange Bag Program Finds New Home For Waste

hefty, orange bag, energybag, energy bag, recycling
City of Boise

Boise and Meridian residents have been filling special orange bags with hard-to-recycle plastics since 2018. Initially, the ‘Hefty EnergyBags’ were shipped to Renewlogy, a Utah company, where the plastic waste could be turned into fuel. But, that plant stalled more than a year ago to undergo upgrades to its sorting equipment.

The bags piled up until earlier this year, when Boise, like some other cities in the program, began shipping them for use in cement manufacturing.

“A cement kiln is combusting the plastics to use as a fuel source,” said Craig Cookson, Senior Director of Recyclables at the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry group.

In May, Boise said an initial environmental review showed that even with the impact of combustion, using the plastics to fuel cement production was still better than firing kilns with traditional fuels like coal, or just throwing the bags in a landfill.

Cookson said the physical waste from the combusted plastics actually becomes part of the cement and there is no waste. This is, he said, a different process than what companies like Renewlogy do. Those plants use a process called advanced recycling.

“Advanced recycling is not combusting,” he said. “The plastics, they are essentially in an oxygen-free environment, they are melting the plastics via heat.”

He said the melted plastic becomes gas, which is then cooled and recaptured to make new materials and fuel. Some of the captured product is used to power the process.

Boise intends to review its environmental study this September and will decide if sending the orange bags to cement manufacturers should continue. A city spokeswoman said that Renewlogy is in the final phase of its equipment upgrades and should be able to resume processing the EnergyBags before the end of the year.

Renewlogy, Boise’s preferred recycling partner in the EnergyBag program, did not return requests for comment.

Program participants can buy the orange bags at Albertsons, Target or the Boise Co-op. The city says it’s working on getting the bags into another retailer. In spring of 2019, the city provided vouchers for the bags, but Boise said it has not decided whether to offer discounts again.

Cookson said there are many different ‘advanced recycling’ techniques becoming more widely used for plastics, but the challenge isn’t the technology.

“There are challenges in collecting these plastics,” he said. “That's where the energy bag is a very exciting program to think about; a different method that doesn't really add cost of how to collect these plastics that right now are not commonly accepted in community recycling programs.”

Boise’s EnergyBag website shows most plastics numbered 4-7 can be put in the orange bags and get picked up in the city’s regular blue recycling bins.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News. He's also heard Saturday nights on Boise State Public Radio Music's Jazz Conversations.