Collection is only the first step in the recycling process. To close the loop, materials then need to be processed into a form that allows them to be converted into a reusable product.
As April 22, Earth Day, approaches, all of us tell ourselves we’re doing the right thing when we throw some of our trash in that big blue recycling bin. Albuquerque has had curbside recycling for years, and it stepped up its game in 2013 by adding those blue bins so customers no longer had to bundle up newspapers and package soup cans for pickup.
The convenience of having a large single-stream bin on wheels in every driveway moved tens of thousands of tons headed for the landfill into the annual recycling stream and, in some years, tens of thousands of dollars to the Solid Waste Department. Then, last year, China decided not to buy many kinds of recyclable trash and the United States couldn’t offload this garbage stream as easily.
The price for mixed paper went from $32 a ton in 2017 to $4.69 a ton a year later. Around 2,000 tons of it piled up outside the Friedman Recycling plant in the North Valley. And what was a potential few hundred thousand dollars in revenue for the city became close to a million bucks in expenses.
Makes you think twice when you lift that blue lid, doesn’t it?
Morris Friedman, president of Friedman Recycling, which has around four years left on its 12-year contract with the city, says recycling in the Duke City is “still alive. It’s still moving at a negative number, but it’s not going to a landfill, which is part of the purpose of keeping a recycling program.” That’s a good thing. But in a state leading the way with a zero-carbon emissions target for 2045, aren’t there tweaks to make our recycling efforts more impactful and cost effective?
The cost of Albuquerque’s curbside recycling has already topped $1.2 million this fiscal year. The trucks, fuel and manpower to collect what’s in those blue bins add another $4.1 million. And while Albuquerque Solid Waste director Matthew Whelan says “we’re not reducing the amount of recycling, we’re not reducing our pickups. … We’re continuing as we always have,” the question is “why not?”
Because unless a blue bin is brimming with recyclables, it makes zero sense to send huge trucks with internal combustion engines rumbling down every residential street in Albuquerque every week. Residents in unincorporated Bernalillo County get by with recyclable pickup every other week.
In fact, many places are miles ahead of Albuquerque on this front, and we should look at recycling their efforts:
• Australia, Finland, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and Baltimore – to name a few – use wireless sensors in trash bins to measure the fill level and forecast when they will be full, then automatically optimize collection plans and routes.
• Singapore’s incineration plants reduce waste volume by 90 percent and power almost 1,000 homes a day.
• Mangalore, India, trash makes 20 tons of compost a day.
• And Sweden, which is shooting for zero waste via a circular economy, incentivizes sharing and re-use rather than throwing away. The tax system provides for cheaper repairs on used items and clothing giant H&M gives discounts to customers who turn in old clothes.
Whelan’s right, “the recycling program is a lot about sustainability as well.” Individuals can do their part by consciously cutting back what they throw away in recycling and trash bins, what can be reused or put in the compost heap.
And this Earth Day, Albuquerque and all New Mexicans should embrace the concept of recycling and ways to reduce their trash. Because reducing the amount of garbage turns the kind of profit you can’t put a dollar sign on.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.