When China’s plastic ban went into effect in January of 2018, recycling centers in Boise, Idaho, had no choice but to cut back on the plastics they could accept.
Plastics marked with recycling codes 3 through 7 were no longer accepted in curbside recycling carts — and Boiseans were understandably upset. “Our community is deeply committed to sustainability, so sending these plastics to the landfill was the last option for us,” Boise Mayor Dave Bieter explained in a press release.
Fortunately for Boise residents, the city won a $50,000 grant to establish a local Hefty EnergyBag program in 2017. The program launched in April 2018.
What Is the Hefty EnergyBag Program?
The EnergyBag program allows participating households to place non-recyclable plastics — such as food pouches, plastic utensils, plastic grocery bags, straws, and candy wrappers — into a special orange bag. When full, the orange bag is tied up and placed in the curbside recycling bin. From there, it makes its way to the local recycling facility where it’s presorted, baled, and delivered to an energy recovery facility. The facility converts the plastics into valuable energy sources.
In Boise, materials collected for the Hefty EnergyBag program are sent to Renewlogy, a pyrolysis facility that converts plastic waste into a low-sulfur diesel fuel that produces zero toxic emissions. This process keeps plastics out of the landfills. It also reduces the amount of fossil fuel that must be extracted from the ground and keeps resources in use — thereby contributing to a more circular economy.
In an interview with KTVB, Colin Hickman, the communications manager for the City of Boise Public Works Department, reported the program’s success in its first two months. “We’ve collected about 54,000 pounds of non-recyclable plastic. You think about how lightweight plastic is, that’s an amazing amount of material. At its most basic level, that’s 54,000 pounds of material that would’ve been buried in the landfill forever and now is going to be given new life and be beneficially reused.”
Where Is the Program Running?
Besides Boise, the Hefty EnergyBag Program is active in the Omaha area of Nebraska and it will be implemented in Cobb County, Georgia, in the future. As with Boise and Omaha, Cobb County’s plastics will make their way to an approved end market. However, Omaha’s program has been lambasted by critics as harmful to the environment; the plastics collected in Omaha end their life cycle incinerated, not converted into fuel.
Earth911 asked the program’s sponsor, Dow, and the incinerator operator’s response to the criticism.
“Using hard to recycle plastics as fuel keeps these materials out of landfills and acts as a stepping stone until pyrolysis technologies and the related infrastructure are further developed and in place at a viable scale,” said Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability director at Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics, which sponsors the Hefty EnergyBag program, in response to critics of the Omaha incineration program. “Ultimately, each step helps bring us closer to increased chemical recycling that would enable the production of plastics from recycled chemicals.”
“Even though plastic incineration is being questioned,” said Dale Gubbels, president and CEO of materials recovery facility Firstar Inc., which processes EnergyBag materials in Omaha, “these otherwise hard to recycle plastics displace the need for non-renewable fuel sources, such as coal and coke, in the manufacture of cement. Interim end-markets that use collected plastics as fuels, like cement kilns, offset the need for virgin fuel and extend the usefulness of waste plastics.”
Where Things Are Headed
Although recycling isn’t the best thing we can do for the environment — ideally, we would prevent waste creation in the first place — it’s still preferable to treatment or disposal. Until such as time as single-use plastics are banned or consumers stop buying them, the Hefty EnergyBag program is another step that communities can take to keep plastics out of landfills and oceans.
As Boise’s mayor puts it, “This is an innovative solution that allows us to turn a bad situation into something quite positive.”
Editor’s note: On August 7, 2018, Earth911 corrected information about where the Hefty EnergyBag program is currently running, based on input from the Dow Chemical Company, which supports the program. The pyrolysis option is a better option environmentally, and the elimination of single-use packaging would be an ideal next step for the industry.
Feature image credit: Hefty EnergyBag Program