Armando Gabaldon still remembers hauling loads of garbage by hand and emptying smelly bins one by one, hundreds of times a day, when he worked as an operator for the city’s waste division.
All that changed about ten years ago, when Santa Fe switched to an automated system for solid waste. These days, garbage trucks employ a mechanical arm to dump garbage from curbside to receptacle, saving time, knees and backs.
In the coming weeks, the city will make the same upgrade for recycling.
Beginning March 13, a contractor called Cascade will deliver to city residents roughly 30,000 64-gallon recycling bins, funded through a grant with Recycling Partnerships, a nonprofit. The new carts replace the flimsy, blue, box-like containers currently used to separate plastics, cardboard, aluminum and glass.
With the new carts, residents can toss out all their recyclables together without separating by type—except glass. When the city rolls out its fleet of seven new recycling trucks, operators will stop accepting glass on their daily pickups. Residents who want to recycle glass must personally deliver it to one of four dropoff spots. (Those locations are at 1142 Siler Road, 202 Murales Road, 4009 Lucia Lane and the Buckman Road Recycling and Transfer Station, better known as BuRRT.)
For Gabaldon, now a recycling supervisor, it's about damn time. Santa Fe lags behind other jurisdictions, including Albuquerque, which made the switch to automated recycling pickup in 2013. Since then, Albuquerque has more than doubled its quantity of recycled materials. "We're still wearing swords and body armor. We're in the dark ages," Gabaldon says. "We're so far behind it's not even funny."
The city seems to have a sense of humor about its behind-on-the-times approach to recycling. "The 90's called. They want their bin back," reads a print ad campaign.
On a recent Monday morning, SFR sat with Gabaldon as he trailed one of the city's recycling trucks in a pickup. We hopped out at a neighborhood near Payne's Nursery, where Abe Sanchez and Lloyd Sandoval, operating a recycling truck, just finished dumping another load of cans, bottles and cardboard. We asked them about the upcoming changes.
"It's going to be easier, labor-wise," says Sandoval. "But I'm going to go miss the old system a little bit because I'll be by myself rather than working with a partner."
He adds, "We're not going to get the exercise, so we'll have to start going to the gym."
For the city, it's been a change long in the making. Our current recycling processor, the Albuquerque-based Friedman Recycling, doesn't accept glass. We used to process all recycled materials here at BuRRT; however, since a joint city/county agency started contracting the task to Friedman in summer 2015, operators are leaving glass piled in Santa Fe and trucking other materials to Albuquerque.
The agency currently grinds up your Yuengling and Yoo-hoo bottles at BuRRT on the northeast end of town. Some of the end product is integrated into pavement. Much of it gets sold to Growstone, a hydroponic substrate manufacturer in Albuquerque, which is currently seeing a boom in sales thanks to the burgeoning marijuana industry. Santa Fe sold roughly 2,100 tons of glass to the company in 2016, according to Growstone CFO Tina Gibson.
City officials predict that recycling rates will stay flat in 2017, but eventually hope to see an 80 to 100-percent increase. We've already made great strides in recent years. Santa Fe County, including the city, raised its abysmal recycling rate from 8.4 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2015, according to the most recent available data.
Adam Schlachter, the city's environmental services division outreach coordinator, says the recent improvement is partly due to Santa Fe's switch to Friedman, which greatly expanded the array of recyclable materials available for curbside pickup. Suddenly, residents could toss milk cartons, phone books and yogurt tubs into their blue bins.
Switching to a single-stream recycling system, Schlachter believes, will help Santa Fe get closer to the national average of 34 percent. His theory isn't rocket science.
"The 14-gallon container was the limiting factor for our program," he says. "What we think happened—and it's all anecdotal—is people filled up their 14-gallon container. What didn't fit probably went into the trash can."
Eldorado/285 Recycles, an advocacy organization, supports the change. "The city has had a very backwards system," explains co-founder Joseph Eigner.
The new carts also include embedded chips that can track how often city residents recycle, but the officials aren't planning on using that tool yet. Drivers will, however, use iPhones to record when residents don't put their carts on the curb.
But some residents have called the city complaining about the switch from curbside glass pickup to drop-off locations. "People say they don't want to drive," says Eva Romero, a receptionist at the environmental services division. Others, she says, misconceive that city will stop recycling glass altogether.
When the new bins get distributed, Gabaldon estimates that it will take another couple weeks to fully implement the new system.
"The change, like anything, will take some time getting used to," Gabaldon says. "But you're gonna have to love it and like it because we're not going with anything else."