The ubiquitous blue recycling bins seen around Albuquerque are oftentimes filled improperly, and city and community leaders are trying to correct course to a more sustainable future.
According to the City of Albuquerque’s Solid Waste Department, 32% percent of what residents currently attempt to recycle is trash. This is worse than prior audits, where only 20% of the items placed into recycle bins was unrecyclable.
The contamination of trash in United States recycling caused China — a major importer of recyclables — to completely stop accepting recyclables from the U.S. in 2018. The decision had a direct impact on how much recyclables are worth, according to Sarah Pierpont, the executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition.
“That is why China closed its doors. The stuff that was getting shipped to China in 2017-18 was pure garbage,” Pierpoint said. “China said, ‘We aren’t doing this anymore; we don’t have the capacity to sort all of this material.'”
Around the holidays, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller made a campaign video about what holiday supplies can and cannot be recycled. However, Jill Holbert, the associate director of the Solid Waste Department, when asked about the levels of contamination caused by the holiday season said, “As in previous years, the holiday surge (of higher contamination) should abate soon.”
The issue, Pierpont said, comes from “wishful recycling.”
“People want to do the right thing. They don’t like the idea of how much waste or consumption there is in our society,” Pierpoint said. “So I think a lot of times, they’ll put something in the recycling bin that doesn’t belong there because they want it to be recycled. It assuages some of their guilt for consuming so much.”
Pierpont said a big example of this is the plastic bags in which people put their recyclables.
“(Plastic bags) clog up the equipment, and they don’t belong in the recycling center. Nowhere in our state accepts plastic bags in their recycling program,” Pierpont said.
As a result, Holbert said the plastic bag and any recyclables inside of it will not be sorted once they reach a recycling facility — they’ll be thrown out instead.
“Plastic bags are one of the top unacceptable materials found in the city’s recycling,” Holbert said. “Plastic bags and bagged recycling are not accepted, are not recycled and are trash.”
Holbert also said “green waste, tanglers (cords, hoses or chains), clothing/linens and food or liquid” are common items people mistakenly try to recycle.
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According to Holbert, this contamination also increases how much it costs the city to provide recycling services.
“Although it affects the cost of recycling, it is not tracked separately in the Friedman contract,” Holbert said, referring to the firm the city contracts with to provide recycling services. “The City of Albuquerque’s contract with Friedman Recycling cost a total of $3,627,109 in fiscal year 2020. The city delivered 38,320 tons of commingled recycling, of which 31.55% — or 12,090 tons — was not acceptable, was not recycled and was trash disposed of at the city’s Cerro Colorado landfill.”
The more Albuquerque residents attempt to recycle trash, the higher the cost to the city and the environment. Additional labor is required to remove and properly dispose of the trash and sort the leftover recycling by type (paper, plastic, glass, etc.).
“(Friedman Recycling) hired more staff and slowed down the conveyor belt,” Pierpoint said. “It was a lot more expensive to process that material (recyclables), and they spent significantly more to make a clean item that Friedman could sell. They were committed to the program, even though it was way beyond what they budgeted.”
Ski Shaski, the supervisor of recycling at the University of New Mexico, believes that the key to solving the problem is educating and empowering residents to properly recycle on their own. This strategy is called “source separation,” a money saving tactic where residents separate their recycling by type before it’s dropped off at a recycling center.
“Our recycling is not very efficient, and (it’s) expensive,” Shaski said. “What I believe will be the next big thing in recycling will be education and what I call source separation. So you’ll have more bins at the point of collection, so people sort at what we call the point of generation.”
Currently, the single-stream collection process is in use across the nation, where all kinds of recyclables are placed into one collection bin. According to Shaski, though, it will remain an ineffective strategy so long as residents continue to try to recycle trash.
“They built their collection sources on a single stream. The argument we’ll make (is to make) it easier for people, so they’ll participate more, so they’ll send us more material,” Shaski said. “The problem is there hasn’t been enough education, so people don’t know what really can go in the blue bins.”
As of now, Albuquerque residents should aim to stay informed on what they’re recycling.
“At the end of the day, if it’s not a commodity that someone can use to make a new product, then its garbage,” Pierpoint said. “It just takes a very expensive route to the landfill.”
For a complete list of what can and cannot be recycled, Holbert pointed residents to the app Recycle Coach and their campaign "Always Recycle Right."
Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @madelinepukite