As if we needed more pandemic-related issues to consider in 2021, it appears that even the minimal recycling efforts we may be making are likely doomed to failure. Lee Dante, president of Roadrunner Waste Service Inc., which has served Corrales since 2004, says what he calls “commingling” of multiple so-called recyclables in one bin is a major issue. Plastic grocery bags, pizza boxes, unwashed fast food/takeout containers, no. Unrinsed tin cans, no. And the Earth Institute at Columbia University reports that “Single-stream recycling, where all recyclables are placed into the same bin, has made recycling easier for consumers, but results in about one-quarter of the material being contaminated.”
At least, though, as Dante puts it, “the public finally has learned to recycle, with New Mexico at least 20 years behind many parts of the country…” And now ironically, “it costs more to recycle than to bury items in landfill.” And Sandoval County is charging more for the use of landfill.
Even communities and companies committed to recycling are grappling with a range of complications. Before 2018, the U.S. sent mega amounts of ”trash” to China for recycling. According to a March 2020 report by the Earth Institute, “in 2016, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of plastic, paper and metals to China.” Of that, 30 percent was never actually recycled. Once China halted being the world’s trash can, the US tried sending largely plastic waste to Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand but that did not work out. Finally, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Laos, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal were in the mix.
“The way the system is configured right now, recycling is a service that competes — and unsurprisingly often loses — for local funding that is also needed for schools, policing, et cetera,” said Stephanie Kersten-Johnston, an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management Master’s Program and director of circular ventures at The Recycling Partnership. “Without dedicated investment, recycling infrastructure won’t be sufficient. In addition, we need to resolve the simple math equation that currently exists — when it’s cheap to landfill, recycling will not be ‘worthwhile’ so we need to start to recognize what landfill really is: a waste of waste!”
And here comes another topic for the Biden administration to tackle, maybe. This country does not have a federal recycling program. “Recycling decision-making is currently in the hands of 20,000 communities in the U.S., all of which make their own choices about whether and what to recycle,” said Kersten-Johnston. “Many stakeholders with many different interests converge around this topic and we need to find common ground and goals to avoid working against one another. That means companies coming together with communities, recyclers, haulers, manufacturers and consumers to try to make progress together.”
Roadrunner Waste’s Dante claims the City of Albuquerque dictates recycling practices for Corrales. In 2013 the City began a $2 million contract with Friedman Recycling, based in Phoenix, which had opened a 90,000 square-foot “materials recovery facility” in the North Valley. Friedman was outfitted by BHS, founded in 1976 and headquartered in Eugene, Oregon. The company “designs, manufactures and installs processing systems tailored to extract recyclables from the waste stream.”
Since then, whatever Roadrunner considers “recyclable” goes to Friedman, which is the only game in town. On September 30, 2020 an Albuquerque tv station KOAT reporter broadcast with a fire raging behind her at the recycling facility. Owner Morris Friedman said “We’re dealing with combustible products.” And seemingly fire comes with the territory. The journalist said on air that a year prior, another major fire had broken out there. She added that over the past seven years Friedman Recycling had racked up more than $50,000 in fines.
The City of Albuquerque is considering raising fees for trash collection more than 10 percent in 2021, given assorted difficulties encountered in handling recycling issues. Lee Dante says he sees local restaurant waste volume is down between 10 and 15 percent, while Roadrunner’s household waste business is up between 10 and 12 percent. Which all makes sense given the pandemic.
Who pays whom for what, in recycling? According to Earth Institute,“Germany recycles 56 percent of its trash by providing different colored bins for different colored glass and other items. The country uses the Green Dot recycling system: When a green dot is placed on packaging material, it indicates that the manufacturer contributes to the cost of collection and recycling. These manufacturers pay a license fee to a waste collection company that is calculated on weight in order to get their packaging picked up, sorted and recycled.”
Some American cities encourage glass recycling by putting a deposit on beverage bottles. Glass, mind you, can be totally recycled and reused. Albuquerque has set up glass bottle recycling bins around town, as companies such as Waste Management will not recycle bottles tossed in their trash cans.
An almost perfect recyclable is the cardboard box, mountains of which are now turning up as the pandemic-driven shift from in-person shopping to online, has resulted in more. A December 2020 article in the Washington Post stated that “More paper by weight is recovered for recycling from municipal solid waste streams than glass, plastic, steel and aluminum combined,” Heidi Brock, president and chief executive of the American Forest and Paper Association, said in an emailed statement. “As more people stay at home, it’s a good reminder that the box at your doorstep is designed to be recycled.”
Clean boxes, mind you. As for plastic….. “New plastic,” as in pristine products made from oil, is far less expensive to obtain than items made from recycled plastics. Plus it is surging as plastic shields, masks, containers, and medical gear are so crucial in the fight to contain COVID-19. A lengthy October report by Joe Brock for Reuters stated that “Since COVID-19, even drinks bottles made of recycled plastic – the most commonly recycled plastic item – have become less viable. The recycled plastic to make them is 83 percent to 93 percent more expensive than new bottle-grade plastic, according to market analysts at the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS).”
With demand for oil down worldwide, due to stay-at-home restrictions, as well as increased interest in electric vehicles and cars with greatly improved gas mileage, the oil and gas industry is casting about for new ways to increase revenue. Brock’s report goes on to say that the industry is committing”…$400 billion over the next five years on plants to make raw materials for virgin plastic.”
Meanwhile, Roadrunner continues to recycle horse manure for residents, and loses money on it, even though the City of Albuquerque has need of it. Dante jokes that “it’s cheaper to feed a car than a horse…”