Boise on the cutting edge of a 'recycling revolution'

Reporter's Note: Boise is embracing an emerging technology that could forever change recycling. It starts with an orange bag. Residents fill that bag will plastics that used to go to the dump. These are plastics that no recycler wanted. Until now.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (KBOI) At the Renewlogy plant in Salt Lake City I walked along the stacks of baled, plastic trash with company founder, Priyanka Bakaya. I marveled that none of it was headed to the landfill, “So, this is the stuff that other recyclers don’t want?”

“Yes,” was her firm answer. Then she hit me with the current state of plastics recycling, “We produce 300-million tons of plastic globally each year and only 9% of it is recycled.”

Just 9%! I couldn’t believe it. All those years of filling recycling bins, and it still left 91% of plastics going to the landfill. Why?

The answer is that traditional recyclers only take a certain type of plastic that can be chipped, melted and remolded into some new. Mechanical recycling.

What Priyanka Bakaya is talking about is a recycling revolution, a process that takes plastics down to the molecular level and turns it into high grade liquid fuel. And she can do it with just about any plastic.

Sounds like alchemy, but it is actually pyrolysis.

Here’s how it works:

Plastics come from petroleum. The pyrolysis technology takes the refining process back a few steps. The plastic is chipped, melted and then vaporized in an oxygen-free chamber. Bakaya explains, "As the plastic comes off in a vapor form from our reaction process, we cool it to different temperatures. And based on the temperatures we cool the plastic vapors, we can make different fuel products.”

The process is highly efficient. Bakaya says there's almost no waste, “70 to 80% will become this liquid fuel product. Then we get about 20% that’s similar to a natural gas that we recycle and that's what heats the process. Only 1-2% comes out as a dry char that is basically any organics and labels that are left on the plastics.”

One Renewlogy recycling unit can take ten tons of plastic trash a day and turn it into 2,500 gallons of fuel.

Bakaya does not want to create a giant plastics-to-fuel recycling center in Salt Lake. Rather, she wants to sell and install recycling units all over the world. “The closer you get to the plastic source, the better it is for the overall sustainability.”

On the day I visited her plant in Salt Lake, a unit was being prepared for shipment to Nova Scotia, Canada.

Perhaps one day, it might make sense to set up one in the Treasure Valley. “I think we're going to see how the first few months of this program go and see if it ultimately makes sense to have something located in Boise itself.”

In the meantime, the orange bags full of plastics will be collected, baled and sent to Salt Lake City where the trash can be turned into fuel.

“This is a huge opportunity for Boise residents to really feel empowered about what’s in that recycling bin,” said Bakaya. “And they know now that what they're putting into this orange bag, that's going to find a home that's local, it's not just getting shipped off into another country to be somebody else’s problem.

“Instead of something that was ending up in our landfills and oceans, you now have something that's a usable product.”

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