Environment: (Un)Green In The Q

Would The City Recycle More If It Were Easier?

Simon McCormack
4 min read
(Un)Green in the Q
Albuquerque’s sorting facility (Christie Chisholm)
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Albuquerque is way behind its municipal counterparts when it comes to recycling.

Only about 3 to 5 percent of Albuquerque’s trash gets recycled. "That’s very low," says
Solid Waste Management Deputy Director Jill Holbert. "The national average is about 33 percent."

Holbert mentions a caveat to the piddling percentage. If you include the recycling being done by private companies in Albuquerque, the number jumps to about 20 percent—still well below the national average.

There is hope on the horizon for those who don’t want to see the Duke City so far behind the curve. Results of a pilot program using 10,000 homes in four parts of Albuquerque indicate that when recycling is made easier, people do it.

Households in the Northeast Heights, Nob Hill area, near South Valley and Westside were given blue bins similar to the black ones used for trash. The program found that 77 percent of those who got the bins used them. Most didn’t just throw a few cartons of milk into the bin. On average, the residents recycled 30 tons per month. That’s three times the average of those not in the pilot study.

Folks in the study who decide to roll out their receptacles may be drawn in by the lure of coupons. Every time a bin gets picked up, a chip inside registers it. Homes get points based on how many pickups the chip registers. Those points are good for coupons at various local and national businesses.

Holbert says it’s unlikely a homeowner could trick the city into handing out more coupons. "There is a driver in the truck, and he has a little red button," Holbert says. "He can actually negate your credit for that week if you put bricks in your container or something like that."

Holbert says large percentages of people in all studied neighborhoods are taking advantage of their blue bins. "We look at that as a very successful pilot," Holbert says. "We’d like to go citywide with that because we think we can have that success on a citywide level."

Not So Fast

For everyone to get blue bins, Holbert says the city would need a new sorting facility. Albuquerque’s operation is at capacity. About one-third of the recyclables the city collects are sent to other sorting facilities. Albuquerque’s plant doesn’t have room to process them. Though some of them aren’t sorted in Burque, Holbert says no recyclables are dumped in the landfill.

But how to pay for another sorting facility? Two possibilities are being tossed around. A private company could come in, construct a facility and start sorting paper, cans, cardboard and all the rest. Or, the city could build one and take on the costs and financial rewards that go with it. Holbert and Mayor Martin Chavez say they don’t care which option gets picked. "I just want the facility," Holbert says. "However it comes is fine with me."

The new sorting facility will cost millions to construct and millions more to operate every year. Giving blue bins to everybody won’t be cheap, either, Holbert says.

That financial burden could be passed on in the form of a rate increase for Solid Waste customers. But, Holbert says, even if no sorting facility gets built and no blue bins are provided, Solid Waste will still request a rate increase. She says what the department charges today isn’t covering its costs. "I don’t want to mislead anybody into thinking the choice is between a rate increase for new services and no rate increase for existing services," Holbert says. "We’re looking at proposing a rate increase either way." How big the proposed uptick would be hasn’t been determined yet, according to Holbert. Before any fees go up, the increase must be approved by the City Council.

What About Businesses?

The Solid Waste Department has no part in providing recycling pickup for businesses. There are several private companies that collect recycling for commercial properties, but they have no competition from Solid Waste. Holbert says she’d be open to the idea of her department jumping into the fray of commercial pickup, but she wants to know what all the stakeholders have to say.

Holbert says she’d like to see a committee composed of local business owners, private recyclers and city government officials. Solid Waste would listen to concerns from all sides and figure out what the department’s function should be. "We need to get everyone at the table," Holbert says. "All of us should sit down and discuss what the city’s role should be in this mix."
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