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Does a park bench in Boise show the future of our orange bag plastics?

When the Hefty EnergyBag recycling program was announced in Boise about three years ago, it asked residents to separate those hard-to-recycle No. 4-7 plastics into orange bags.

The bags were shipped to a Utah company which planned to chemically deconstruct the plastic into diesel fuel. Equipment problems quickly forced the end of that destination, and ever since, the bags have been sent to be incinerated, producing power for concrete production in Utah.

About 20% of Ada County residents dutifully fill orange bags with about 30 tons each month of hard-to-recycle, No. 4-7 plastics: foam, bubble wrap, plastic grocery bags and most food containers. After nearly two years of incinerating the bags as fuel for concrete production, a new company wants to turn our plastic scraps into building materials.

The Hefty EnergyBag program worked with the city of Boise and Los Angeles-based ByFusion to establish a pilot program last year, diverting several truckloads of plastic away from the incinerator and into a machine called a ByBlocker.

In go the orange bags, and out comes a 22-pound multi-colored plastic block which bears a strong resemblance to a lego.

“It's a 16”x8”x8” unit,” ByFusion CEO Heidi Kujawa describes. “The exact same physical dimension as a hollow cement block, but it's about 10 pounds lighter.”

ByFusion’s machines use a combination of steam and compression to create the blocks, which they say have an equal insulating R-value to concrete blocks, but a much better K-value, which means the blocks don’t absorb and radiate heat like concrete does.

Each is a kaleidoscope of single-use plastic.

“Every block is uniquely different. Not in the integrity of the block or how it performs, but in its composition and how it looks. We don't add any colors to it,” Kujawa said.

The bricks are solid, and the sides, while flat, are not smooth. ByFusion’s process doesn’t require sorting or cleaning.

That’s a huge benefit considering that recycling’s biggest obstacle is often that consumers put inappropriate or dirty items into recycling bins.

Boiseans can see the blocks for themselves at Manitou Park, where a base for a new bench has been constructed from the plastic blocks. The mix of materials is evident, with remnants of yogurt containers, plastic utensils, and even a fully readable barcode visible.

I noticed a piece of corrugated cardboard in another block, soaked from the recent snow. It was ready to flake off the block and join several pieces of loose plastic on the ground. Though perhaps messy, the rough finish doesn’t seem to take away any of the overall durability.

Kujawa said ByFusion’s proprietary carbon-neutral process doesn’t melt the plastic to make smooth edges. While many of the recycled block pilot project uses are proposed for outdoors — landscaping, dumpster enclosures or sound walls — ByFusion’s online presence has mainly promoted the block’s potential for regular construction use.

“It's intended to be clad, so it's smooth enough that drywall or siding or tile can be applied to it without issue,” Kujawa said.

While the city participates in the program, Boise doesn’t choose exactly what happens to the plastics residents recycle. The EnergyBag program does that, one of the reasons the orange bags are more costly than regular trash bags. But the thought of keeping some or all of the single-use plastics for reuse locally is exciting for Peter McCullough, Materials Management Program Manager with the city of Boise.

“That’s really sort of the ultimate goal of any of our recycling,” McCullough said. “There's not the transportation costs and there's not the transportation greenhouse gases. That's really what we're always looking for, and it’s not easy.”

He said the partnership with ByFusion doesn’t cost the city anything, but future expansion of the pilot project will depend on whether there’s a market for the blocks.

“Our role is to try it out,” he said. “We're going to try out some of the initial projects and let people look at them and hopefully inspire the public or other businesses to give it a shot, and see the different things that they can do with it.”

If the pilot does expand, the city does not plan to host the ByBlocker machines on city property. McCullough compared ByFusion to Western Recycling — both are private companies that take recyclable materials and resell them or create new items.

Boise Parks and Rec will complete the bench in Manitou Park next month, and blocks made during the pilot project will be used in other public installations in and around Boise this spring. ByFusion is also piloting its technology in Tucson, Ariz., Hawai’i and Guam.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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