Limitation of Recyclable Materials in Small and Rural Communities: Teton Valley Idaho

Why can't certain materials be recycled in Teton Valley Idaho?

Hearing this comment used to be a source of my frustration, but now it is music to my (RAD) ears. The most common question is – “Why can’t we recycle #3 - #7 plastics and greyboard/paperboard?I could do it in (insert former location).” These comments scream that we want to divert more and it’s important enough to us to fight for. Passion is the fuel progression requires. Harnessing passion to constructively impact our community is the next step and it starts with education. There are over 35 divertible or recyclable commodities, so what is the next most important and valuable commodity for our community to divert? Great question. My response-question takes a step back and requires collaboration to answer: “Is it sustainable to increase the spectrum of materials we process to satisfy the ~25% of the community that current recycles… or should our energies be put into increasing participation so that we maximize the diversion of materials that have highest net value and lowest market value fluctuation in order to gain momentum and overall value?”

Understanding our current recycling system provides insight to what our community is able to process now and why. The feasibility of processing any commodity and overall a greater spectrum of commodities comes down to what RAD refers to as the “Equation of Diversion and Participation”

Participation + Volume + Value = Increase in Participation

The great part about the equation components, is that they are cyclical and self sustaining. As participation increases, volumes increase. As volumes increase, values increase. As value increases and is publicized, participation typically increases.

The “Value” component of the equation can have a misleading controlling effect. It does have a few dependencies, such as our relationship with commodity buyers. Commodity buyers rely on two key things:

  • 1 Sources of commodities, like Teton County, to provide consistent volumes that are uncontaminated.
  • 2 Market Values. Teton Valley residents have the ability to control part of #1 - participation in recycling, Teton County’s transfer Station has a final control of zero contamination. At a critical mass of participation and volume, recycling can translate to a direct return value, such as lower costs of service due to revenue generation.

Right now, “Participation” is one of the keys to success for Teton County, specifically enabling participation through convenient easy method of recycling, incentivizing rates and clear benefits that are all conveyed through significant education and outreach efforts. Both are needed, but which is more important for Teton Valley right now? While we consider making the choice between maximizing current material recycled and more materials, we must avoid a critical mistake – Don’t provide services or choices that are not sustainable and scalable. Designing the approach that does not overwhelm the current processing capability is key. Doing it all, or even larger scale projects such as food waste composting, right now is not realistic. A well-planned and balanced hybrid approach on a set timeline seems most suited, including:

  • 1 Pilot Programs to increase processing capabilities for new materials increasing the spectrum of process-able materials.
  • 2 Participation Strategies supported by Educational Outreach to increase participation and maximize the use of our current processing capacities.

This is what the Transfer Station staff has successfully been doing and they deserve high-fives for the progress achieved over the last 4 years. Did you know Teton County went from 18.5% diversion rate in 2013 to 28% diversion rate in 2014? Oh, by the way our animal composting program, which managed 86 tons in 2014, is heralded by the Idaho DEQ as the state’s model animal composting program! (so awesome!) And use of crushed glass to firm up Transfer Station roadways gets kudos as well.

We are moving in the right direction, and know that our County holds itself to a higher standard and a more global approach to recycling with our (Recycling) Disclosure Policy. This policy was initiated by RAD, revised by the Teton Community Recycling and adopted by the County in 2011. We don’t just sell materials, our County takes the time to ask commodity buyers – Where do the materials go? What do they get turned into? Our county doesn’t always get an answer since commodity buyers don’t have to tell us, but we have the responsible approach to try and find out, so the County can provide clarity to homes who are recycling in Teton Valley and thus earn a greater trust from its residents that recycling is purposeful and valuable.

A more inclusive and long term approach is: How do we insulate our community from uncontrolled factors such as commodity market values, increasing fuel costs that erode commodity sales margins, or worse, increased tipping fees to landfill at Mud Lake? Analyze the creation of local cottage industry as a local outlet for the recycled materials – Food Waste is a valuable grade compost; recycled plastics can be used for simple plastic injection molding, etc. This direction bolsters our local economy too!

Fight for it! Whatever your perspective is – in a constructive and educated way. Take the time to understand the whole situation, but be persistent. What questions do you have? What are RAD’s current goals? Tell us what you think our initiatives should be. Email or call RAD your thoughts and ideas – or call 208.220.7721

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