Burque’s Maxed-Out Recycling Plant

The City Considers Three Options For Expanding Albuquerque’s Recycling Program

Simon McCormack
5 min read
Trash Talk
Trucks like these could soon take recyclables to a larger sorting facility. The city’s processing plant is at capacity. (Courtesy of the Solid Waste Management Department)
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About 5 percent of the trash the city picks up gets recycled.

Mayor Martin Chavez and the City Council would like to see that number go up, but deciding the best way to make that happen is tricky.

Albuquerque doesn’t actually recycle anything itself. Instead, recyclable materials left on the curb are sent to the city’s
processing facility, where items are sorted, crunched into WALL-E-style bails and shipped out of town to recycling plants.

The city’s sorting facility is at capacity and processing as much as it can handle every week. That means if the recycling program is going to expand, Albuquerque needs another facility, according to Ed Adams, the city’s chief administrative officer. The city is looking at three possibilities. Every proposal for building a new facility has its pros and cons—and each has its critics.

The City Shoulders It

One option is the city could build and operate a larger processing facility. Jill Holbert, deputy director of the Solid Waste Management Department, says the estimated construction cost is about $19 million. Operating it would cost an estimated $2.2 million to $3.6 million every year, according to Holbert.

The plus side of this proposal, Holbert says, is the city would have complete control over the recyclable materials as it does now—from the instant they’re picked up from the curb to the moment they’re sorted and sold to be recycled. The city would also be able to bring in money by selling the recyclable goods it collects.

The downside is the city would have to foot the whole bill. Construction would probably be paid for by a bond or a loan from the city that Solid Waste would have to pay back. Though it’s run by the city, Solid Waste doesn’t receive any taxpayer dollars. All of its funding comes from the fees it charges folks to pick up their trash. The department would pay the city back using the money from those fees.

Councilor Michael Cadigan isn’t crazy about the idea of spending millions on a new facility during dicey economic times. “Everybody on Council is excited about expanding recycling,” Cadigan says. “The question is, when gross receipts are dropping drastically, property values are plummeting and tax revenues are decreasing, is now the time to embark on an expensive endeavor like this?”

Private All the Way

Another option is the city could remove itself from the equation altogether, and a private company could build and operate a sorting facility. In this scenario, the city wouldn’t have to spend the $19 million it would cost to construct a new building. It wouldn’t have to pay the $2.2 million to $3.6 million each year to operate it, either. Holbert says there are several companies interested in building and running a sorting facility in Albuquerque.

Instead of paying the city back for the new facility, Solid Waste could use the money for other projects, Holbert says.

Councilors Rey Garduño and Debbie O’Malley express apprehension about handing over the city’s recycling to the private sector. “I want to see the final numbers, but my commitment is to make sure that public services stay public,” Garduño says.

According to Andrew Padilla, if the city farms out this work, the facility’s employees will have fewer benefits and lower wages than city employees. Padilla, president of a union that includes solid waste employees, says any company interested in the city’s recycling wants to make cash. “You have to be very cautious when a private company wants to give you millions of dollars, because they’re not in business to lose money,” Padilla says. “What they want is a lucrative contract for many years to run the recycling facility, and they’ll want all the profits.”

Holbert says it’s likely that if this option is chosen, the city would forge a profit-sharing agreement with a private company. She also says the city would probably have to share some of the cost of building a facility.

The Split

The final option under consideration involves the city paying for a new facility and then getting a private company to operate it. Under this proposal, the city would save the $2.2 million to $3.6 million it would cost to operate the facility and could sell its right to collect and resell recyclable material.

Cadigan balks at the notion that the city should give up rights to its recyclable goods—which are worth money—and pay for a new facility. “The way I understand it, we would go around and pick up everyone’s recycling and deliver it to the private company,” Cadigan says. “That means they’re making all the money, and we’re paying all the bills.”

Holbert says the analysis of all three options should be complete by the end of the year. After that, Holbert says the city will get input from the public before bringing the proposal to the Council for consideration. There are no numbers available yet on whether any of the proposals will change how much people pay for trash pickup.

“Each plan has advantages and disadvantages,” Holbert says. “There’s no right or wrong answer.”

If funds are secured for a new plant, the old building could be used for maintenance or as a glass recycling facility, according to Holbert. She adds that she doesn’t foresee any solid waste employees losing their jobs no matter which plan Albuquerque chooses.

Councilor Sally Mayer says her primary concern is that no one employed by Solid Waste loses their job and that the best plan is the most cost-effective one. Councilors Don Harris and Brad Winter declined to comment.
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