Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The contents of Albuquerque’s city-issued blue bins whiz by on a conveyor belt running about two stories above the ground at Friedman Recycling’s North Valley plant.
Pepsi cans. Journal sports pages. Frozen-waffle boxes.
Crews pull the big stuff – like cat litter jugs and 5-gallon buckets – and the problem items – think extension cords – out as early as possible. The rest continues through a series of churning screens meant to isolate newspaper and otherwise separate fiber from containers.
The man-and-machine operation keeps going from there, with gloved hands aiding the optical scanners and magnets in an effort to properly separate up to 30 tons of material per hour. It culminates in tidy 900-pound bricks of flattened aluminum cans and 2,200-pound bales of paper.
City officials remain committed to the painstaking and increasingly expensive process, citing the importance of recycling even as the value of some of those bales has greatly diminished.
The Friedman plant takes in more “mixed paper” – those old magazines, unwanted credit-card offers and office memos – than anything else, but it has become increasingly hard to sell off. China in 2018 jolted the international recycling markets by banning the import of several scrap materials, including mixed paper.
China had up to then been consuming more U.S. recyclables than any other country. Its ban depressed revenue. The National Waste & Recycling Association noted in a February report that the price for mixed paper had fallen to $4.69 per ton in December 2018 from $32 per ton a year prior.
Paper accounted for much of the backlog – about 2,000 tons – that piled up for months outside of Friedman’s 95,000-square-foot plant.
The company has since found new takers for paper, albeit at a much lower price.
Indeed, Albuquerque officials say they intend to continue the recycling program as-is despite the market disruptions that have greatly increased its cost.
“We’re not reducing the amount of recycling, we’re not reducing our pickups, we’re not doing any of that,” Albuquerque Solid Waste director Matthew Whelan said. “We’re continuing as we always have.”
‘We should be OK’
The city in 2011 signed a 12-year contract with Friedman to process its curbside recyclables. The government actually profited a few times, because the agreement has a revenue-sharing component; however, the deal has typically cost the city a few hundred thousand dollars per year.
But the expense ballooned to $977,663 in fiscal year 2018, and it looks poised to soar again in 2019. Costs had already topped $1.2 million through the first half of the fiscal year that ends June 30, according to data provided by the city.
And that’s just a portion of what the city spends on curbside recycling – a “single-stream” program that allows residents to place all types of recyclables in the same bin for sorting at Friedman’s plant.
Other costs – like the manpower expended to drive the collection routes – added another $4.1 million in 2018, though city officials note some of that would apply even if it handled the blue bin’s contents as garbage instead.
Whelan said the city has never intended to profit from its recycling program.
“We’re paying (Friedman) to process and put the materials back into use,” Whelan said. “We feel like the recycling program is a lot about sustainability as well. That’s a big part of our recycling program. There are many other benefits to recycling.”
But with the costs spiking to administer it, is it sustainable?
Whelan said the Solid Waste Department has weathered the changes so far, and associate director Jill Holbert noted that the city may have had even higher recycling costs before it contracted with Friedman.
The department runs as an enterprise operation, meaning its $73 million annual budget comes from its own revenue and not the city’s general fund. Salary savings on some open positions have helped offset the higher recycling costs, but Whelan said the department has taken no extraordinary measures that would affect operations, such as layoffs or hiring freezes.
“We’ve been able to mitigate that,” he said. “We should be OK budget-wise this year.”
Keeping programs alive
Other communities around the U.S. have struggled, however, with some suspending or curtailing their recycling operations. National news outlets have published stories with headlines like “Is This the End of Recycling?” The industry publication “Waste Dive” has begun chronicling the situation with a continually updated state-by-state list of developments. That includes Cleveland’s move to reinstate fines for putting garbage in recycling carts, Durango adding a recycling surcharge on residents’ bills and Philadelphia opting to incinerate about half of what residents put out for recycling in order to cut costs.
“I applaud the cities that have kept their programs alive – they are spending a lot more to do so. They understand recycling is here to stay,” said Sarah Pierpont, executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition.
But it hasn’t been easy.
The Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency, a city- and county-funded entity, is struggling with the higher costs. The agency in 2015 contracted Friedman to process its recyclables and presently trucks them down to the Albuquerque plant.
When commodity prices were higher, the agency offset about half those transportation expenses by sharing the revenue Friedman made selling the collections. At that point, Santa Fe’s net cost to administer the program was about $125,000 a year, SFSWA Executive Director Randall Kippenbrock said.
But at current rates – and under a contract amendment forged after China changed its policy – it runs about $1 million, he said.
SFSWA committed last year to not alter or limit what it accepts for recycling, but Kippenbrock called the present expense level unsustainable. The agency recently issued a request for proposals to determine how to proceed after its Friedman contract expires in June.
“When we did an amendment to our contract, Friedman Recycling was positive about things will get better,” Kippenbrock said. “But it has not in the past 12 months.”
Santa Fe and Albuquerque are among about a half-dozen New Mexico cities that offer curbside recycling, Pierpont said, though many smaller communities provide drop-off locations. Even those have had to adjust. The Estancia Valley Solid Waste Authority once let customers bring bags with a range of unsorted recyclables to its transfer station, but it began having trouble finding companies that wanted some of the materials. Last summer, it restricted its recycling program to presorted aluminum cans, steel cans and corrugated cardboard. The plastic water bottles and office paper it used to recycle now go with the trash to the landfill.
EVSWA General Manager Martin Lucero said he is researching the possibility of going back to the old system, partly because he considers it more environmentally friendly but also because he does not want anything unnecessarily taking up space in the landfill, which is also operated by the authority.
But restoring the wider-ranging recycling program has to make economic sense, he said.
“I want it to be sustainable,” he said. “We don’t want to turn it off and on.”
Consistency is key in Albuquerque, too.
“We don’t feel at this point it’s good to start changing how we’re recycling,” Whelan said.