Stephen Hartgen 01It was a sobering lesson indeed this spring for the Twin Falls City Council to hear the real numbers on the city’s upside-down recycling efforts, which have run up against the dropping values of the materials and the rising costs of the program. And there’s a basic economics course here too – for those willing to see it.

PSI Environmental Services, the city’s waste collection contractor, gave a report on the city’s “single stream” recycling service, which doesn’t require residents to separate recyclable waste from other trash – a convenience for citizens who don’t have to sort trash.

The items then go to a local center, where they’re sorted. The recyclable items are then shipped to Ada County for further processing.

All of this costs money, since last we checked, Boise is roughly 120 miles from Twin Falls. The separation processing runs some $70/ton, plus another $70-100/ton for transportation, and when the so-called “recyclables” get to Ada County, an estimated 11 pounds per 100 (11 percent) can’t be recycled at all and are taken to – wait for it – Ada County’s landfill and thrown away there.

Put directly, we’re shipping so-called “recyclables” to a distant city in diesel-belching, fossil-oil-refined, fuel-inefficient, carbon-footprinting trucks at a cost approaching $200/ton, where over 10 percent is then pitched anyway.

Excellent. We’re spending close to five times the cost of throwing trash away in a local landfill so we can wear our good-eco medals around town. Excellent. 

And we’re doing so while there’s a perfectly good, high, dry, big, plenty-of-space site right here in Twin Falls County at Hub Butte, which has an estimated 40 years before it’s filled up. And the fee to dump a ton of trash there is only $40/ton, and it’s less than 20 miles from town.

For this recycling “service,” Twin Falls residents are billed $16.90/month, which includes a landfill fee of $3.97/month and a sanitation charge of $12.93/month, according to the city’s website.

Indeed, PSI told stunned city officials that if all the city’s “recyclable” products were taken directly to Hub Butte, it would shorten the site’s life by less than two months over 40 years. “Very eye-opening information,” deadpanned Twin Falls mayor Shawn Barigar.  “We’re probably doing more harm than good.”

Yeah, no kidding. It’s a classic problem of when a perceived, social “good” crashes on the rocks of real economics. 

The city utility manager suggested that, just maybe, the recycling program should be limited to the few products which can pay for themselves, including cardboard, and both steel and aluminum cans, but not raw paper, newsprint, glass or plastics. Geeze, Louise. Whoddathunkadat? A government program which is actually scaled to make economic sense. 

Or trim the program back to a voluntary one and let people who want to recycle take their cans and cardboard to the recycling center themselves. That’s what people previously did before the “single stream” waste program was adopted in 2010. Didn’t seem too inconvenient then and it was cost effective.

Makes sense. If people want to try to recycle other products for which there’s no viable market, that’s their right. But cities shouldn’t force an upside-down program like this on a whole community because it’s socially in vogue or “the thing to do.” I’m reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s quip that the problem with socialism is that you soon run out of other people’s money. In this case, we’re draining people’s wallets, but we’re nowhere near out of landfill space.

To be fair, the changing picture of recycling isn’t just a local problem and Idaho communities aren’t the only ones with upside-down programs fueled by goody-two-shoes progressives’ demands. Cities all over the country are struggling with how to make recycling work in a time when it’s no longer cost-effective for many products. To borrow from the first telegraph message: What hath the ecos wrought? 

That’s particularly true of plastics, which we use in virtually every aspect of daily lives, but for which there are few second unprocessed uses. To be bold, there’s nothing wrong with simply throwing the stuff away in a landfill, except that political correctness and false social values stand in the way. 

In the west, the problem is even more readily solvable, since arid, large-capacity sites can be located in many places, as Twin Falls County did at the Hub Butte site some 25 years ago.

Here, we don’t even have to pick a site; we’ve already got one.  We just have to use it. Put the trash in the landfill. Then it won’t get into to the air, earth, oceans, or outer space. Maybe even generate some electricity off the biomass. It’s that simple.  

It’s a problem which could be solved if city officials take the real numbers into account and set aside the costly, feel-good, so-called social “benefits” often used to justify an expensive program with diminishing results.

Stephen Hartgen is a retired Idaho Republican legislator from Twin Falls. He served five terms in the House of Representatives and on the Revenue & Taxation Committee. He previously was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..