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Pocatello recyclables end up in landfills, costing City a quarter million dollars

pocatello garbage cans
KIFI

POCATELLO, Idaho (KIFI) - Time spent sorting your trash may be fruitless and costly, as was uncovered in a Pocatello budget hearing this month.

During the June 8 Budget Development Meeting, Deputy Public Works Director Tom Kirkman revealed the harsh realities of the City's curbside recycling program: Much of the recyclable material Pocatelloans have been dutifully sorting through for the past few years is ending up in landfills anyways, and it's costing the City more than a quarter of a million dollars a year.

"We have a lot of recyclables sitting at the sorting facilities with nowhere for it to go. What that has done is driven prices up," Kirkman told the Council.

In 2018, China implemented its "Green Sword" or "National Sword" policy, which banned the import of most plastics and other materials from being sent to their recycling processors.

“They would only take in recycled plastics when it’s at half a percent contamination, and that’s basically unachievable,” Kirkman said.

This was a blow to recycling programs all over the United States and the world, as China had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the 25 years. The policy change led other cities, like Idaho Falls, to discontinue their recycling programs.

Now, sorting facilities in places like Seattle and Portland--where Pocatello sends their waste--are competing for few options to send their compressed blocks of recyclables. Ultimately, what can't be sold ends up in landfills along the west coast, Kirkman said.

“I really can’t tell you the frequency (this happens), but it’s the reality of it,” Kirkman said.

Pocatelloans like recycling. It took just three years for residents to recycle a million pounds of glass through the City's glass recycling program, which sends its materials to Momentum Recycling in Salt Lake City.

The City's curbside recycling program is also popular. Of the City's 17,500 curbside garbage service accounts, only about 2,000 people choose not to opt-in to the recycling program, which is included in the fees for the garbage service.

The futile efforts of nearly 16,000 Pocatello residents participating in the curbside recycling program amasses about 2,100 tons of recyclable waste, according to Kirkman.

It costs the City $29 to take a ton of garbage to the Bannock County Landfill, whereas it costs anywhere from $140-$160 to recycle it through Western Recycling.

Kirkman calculates it costs Pocatello about $400,000 to recycle 2,100 tons of material a year. To throw that same garbage into the Bannock County Landfill, he estimates it would cost $60,000, saving the City about $340,000 a year. But those calculations are based on current landfill rates, which are expected to rise this year.

“When you start looking at dollars and cents though, it’s very hard to keep recycling when it could save you $300,000 on an annual basis to (discontinue it),” Mayor Brian Blad said.

Council members at the meeting expressed their disappointment in the recycling program’s ineffectiveness, noting how important it is to keep useful material out of the landfill.

“That’s the big question mark when it comes to recycling. It is an expensive program, but it keeps us from filling up our landfills,” Kirkman said.

Landfills are expensive to maintain and build, which is why the City emphasizes its’ glass recycling and compost programs.

“Anytime we can divert any of that product from going in the landfill is definitely advantageous to all the end users,” Kirkman said.

“The last thing we want is our plastic bottles to end up in the ocean or in a landfill somewhere, we’d like to see them be recycled the way everybody anticipates and expects it to happen. Unfortunately we don’t believe that’s happening all the time,” Blad said.

Blad said the Council wants to conduct a study session to find out just how much nixing the program will save users. The City does have the option to end its five year contract with Western Recycling early, if they want to.

The Council has not yet decided whether to ax the program or keep it, but Blad does not expect the City will discontinue curbside recycling in the near future.

“But I do think there will be a more in-depth discussion with the Council and the experts to find out what really is happening with our recycling and if it really truly makes sense,” Blad said.

And now the City is also faced with rising costs to use the landfill. Kirkman said he was recently notified by Bannock County officials that they’re considering raising the price for Pocatello to dump waste by a minimum of $4 a ton, to possibly as much as $12 a ton.

Emma Iannacone

Emma is a reporter for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.

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