The city provides residents two 14-gallon bins for recycling. One is for all your glass. The second bin is for all other accepted recyclable materials.
Glass fragments ornament the landscaping around the Buckman Road Recycling & Transfer Station. Thousands of colored and clear pieces glisten in the sun by the administrative building at the center that’s more commonly referred to as BuRRT.
It’s strange to pick out one of the pieces from the soles of a boot with the realization that broken down to its elements, the ingredients that make up that nettlesome shard could have one day been walked on barefoot.
For the most part, glass is all natural. The primary components are among the most common on the surface of the Earth. They include silica sand, also known as grains of quartz or silicon dioxide, an element Americans have been mining for more than a century.
Another element of glass, limestone, is composed of minerals formed in seabeds. A third element, soda ash, is a gentle powder that helps bring down the melting temperature of the other components, allowing glass-makers to blast the blend together at lower temperatures than they would have to without it.
Even so, glass mixtures must be melted at up to 2,800 degrees to create the end product, which is why the bottle-making industry favors the use of cullet—the recycled pieces of glass sitting idly at BuRRT. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, cullet “prolongs furnace life and saves energy since it melts at a lower temperature.”
Recycling material reduces production expenses for the whole industry. “Glass is the only food and beverage packaging material that is endlessly recyclable back to its original use,” boasts a comprehensive study conducted for the Glass Packaging Institute, which argues recycling and reusing glass reduces CO2 emissions. With the industry on board with recycling, the nation has become more efficient at diverting glass from landfills: From 1980 to 2012, annual glass recycling increased in America from 750,000 tons to more than 3 million tons, according to the EPA, which states that around 90 percent of glass that’s recycled is used to make new glass containers.
In other words, glass is one of the safest, oldest, most naturally occurring packaging products used by humankind—and the country has been recycling it for decades.
But the cullet sitting at Santa Fe’s regional recycling plant has been shattering the city’s image as an eco-friendly town—one whose residents like to think they’re not helping to turn a post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy plot into a reality.
That cullet will eventually be put to use, but nearby there’s a mound of unused glass estimated to weigh 500 tons that officials must also process and resell to an end market that’s tough to find in this isolated region. The closest end users of recycled glass on a large scale are located out of the state, and transporting glass long distances is too costly to justify selling it to plants in places like Texas.
Officials are working to change the fact that Santa Fe only diverted roughly 8.4 percent of its waste stream to recycling in fiscal year 2013, a number revealed by a draft of an external audit. That number represents a steady worsening of recyling habits, down from 9 percent in 2011. Even the city’s top elected official admits that it appears Santa Feans aren’t practicing what they preach.
“When you look at those low recycling rates, it just doesn’t match to the values of this town when it comes to being committed to a high-quality environment,” says Mayor Javier Gonzales.
Waste collection is often the core duty of a city government while recycling that waste remains the cardinal method by which a community reduces its environmental footprint. Santa Fe’s dismal recycling rate sits dishonorably at nearly half the state’s 2012 recycling average and more than 25 percentage points below the nationwide average for that year. Just over half of residents with recycling bins actually put them on the curb on any given route, according to the audit, much lower than the number of residents who set out garbage bins—nearly all of them.
"When you look at those low recycling rates, it just doesn’t match to the values of this town"
Still, many who work in local recycling and waste agree that Santa Fe is facing a turning point in how and where the community tosses its trash.
“One of the top priorities of the city is diversion of waste,” says Lawrence Garcia, acting director of the city’s Environmental Services Division. “We want to increase recycling as much as possible. We do have a low rate.”
This week, the long-awaited report from a private consulting firm is expected to be made available to the public, one whose draft version obtained by SFR shows that the city’s recycling and waste programs suffer on many levels. Outside the city limits, Santa Fe County residents must either drop off waste at county-operated sites or pay for a private hauler to pick it up for them. The same consulting firm completed a report for county commissioners, who are thinking about putting more regulatory teeth on the the system by making the haulers contractors of the county. Mayor Gonzales, too, tells SFR he heard suggestions from community members that they’d like to have the option to drop off recyclables at locations across the city, similar to the county program.
A city councilor says she’s awaiting the full findings of that report to introduce a bill that could potentially have a dramatic impact on how residents in the City Different recycle. Meanwhile, a group called the Solid Waste Advisory Committee is ready to get back to work.
The committee is comprised of various public and private sector stakeholders and is “designed to help increase the effectiveness of solid waste and recycling planning in the community,” says Adam Schlachter, education and outreach coordinator for the agency that handles waste and recycling in Santa Fe. Its first meeting in over a year is set to feature a presentation of some of the findings of the consultant’s study at 1:30 pm, Thursday, July 31 at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center.
“Everyone’s kind of excited to hear what they say,” says Sarah Pierpont, New Mexico Recycling Coalition deputy director. The coalition has released a report showing how communities across the state are repurposing glass. In Silver City, a private company took glass to use in a pavement aggregate, and there’s talk around City Hall here of a proposal that would mandate the use of crushed glass in paving projects.
Statewide, a memorial that passed unanimously in New Mexico’s House of Representatives last session requires the governor’s Environmental Department to study how the state can increase its recycling rate. In 1990, the passage of the New Mexico Solid Waste Act called for the state’s recycling rate to be 25 percent by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. Yet last year, New Mexico’s recycling rate came in at 16 percent. NMED is set to present its findings to lawmakers in November.
Until now, the recycling conversation in Santa Fe has been relatively quiet. During the recent mayoral campaign, Gonzales and his opponent, Councilor Patti Bushee, made plenty of pledges about increasing solar use in the city. But very little was said about the shameful state of recycling, even with polls showing that endorsements from organizations like the Sierra Club meant the most to Santa Fe’s liberal voters, which constitute a majority of the electorate. The Sierra Club endorsed Gonzales, but the only question that marginally dealt with recycling in its extensive questionnaire asked the candidates if they’d support converting food waste into biogas for the city’s bus fleet. Bushee is now, however, one of the councilors working on the alternate plan while Gonzales says he’ll be announcing a “climate action task force” in the upcoming weeks that focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He says “recycling is going to be a component” of the task force, but it will focus on other issues too.
Not many people like to talk about the issue as much as Schlachter. He’s new to Santa Fe but not to the job. A former environmental consultant in the private sector, he’s also worked in an outreach position for public-sector waste management in Tallahassee, Fla. Months ago, he took over the outreach position at the Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency, a move that’s apparent during a discussion of beer bottles among a mountain of unsorted recycling material outside BuRRT. He hadn’t had the pleasure of drinking a Tecate—there are empty bottles of the Mexican brew laying outside—but has indulged in the state’s microbrews.
The city and the county got together years ago to strike a joint powers agreement to create the Solid Waste Management Agency, a public entity that manages both BuRRT and the Caja del Rio Landfill on behalf of the two governments and is known as “SWaMA.” Three county commissioners and three city councilors meet with employees from the agency monthly to deal with the entity’s business in public meetings, yet the elected officials don’t get as much say in its finances as they would over that of their respective jurisdictions. Some argue there’s miscommunication between the agency and the city.
Case in point: The city handles residential and commercial pickup of waste, and earlier this year, secret videos were being taken at Caja del Rio of a city recycling truck dumping recyclables into the landfill on two occasions. In May, the TV news station KRQE aired a segment of the damning undercover footage, and the city launched an official investigation into the incidents.
Schlachter insists it’s not a usual practice. The Environmental Services head, Garcia, tells SFR the city completed its investigation, but he won’t comment much beyond calling it a “personnel” issue that will be addressed by new operating procedures. Officials, he says, are thinking about installing GPS tracking units on the recycling trucks and setting up a city hotline for citizens to report abuse.
While the incidents might have been isolated, Santa Fe’s waste problem is the result of systematic deficiencies that begin at the curbside, get bottled up in the sorting process and come to a head in selling the recyclables. Officials from SWaMA complain that Santa Fe politicians don’t communicate with them about how pending recycling proposals might impact the agency while the elected officials complain SWaMA is putting up barriers to their proposals.
Inside the BuRRT facility, the echos of recycling trucks’ warning signals zing off the warehouse walls as they pull into the middle of the facility to the tipping floor, where they dump loads of the recyclable material they collected at the curbside. In other facilities, tipping floors are separate from the sorting operation, but the BuRRT warehouse bustles with both activities, and visitors must walk inside a yellow line painted on the perimeter of the facility’s floor to avoid the traffic. The recyclables are then picked up by skid steer tractors and loaded onto a conveyor belt, elevated one level, where five workers separate the material by hand by quickly tossing them down chutes. Each person is assigned a specific material to sort, with the exception of cans, which are pushed off the belt by an electromagnetic system.
“We just call it the line,” Schlachter, wearing a construction helmet and safety vest, says of the machine, a sorting and baling system installed in 2007. Once the material is sorted and packaged, ideally, it’s sold to private entities. The Solid Waste Management Agency is classified as “enterprise” by both governments, which means it’s a financially self-supporting entity that relies on the sale of goods and volume-based tipping fees from the city and the county to fund its operations.
Last year, the agency sold more than 7,424 tons of material, 22 percent of which was glass. Milk jugs are valuable products, earning 45 cents per pound. Cardboard is also a hot product, with the Albuquerque-based Bio Pappel International the facility’s largest customer. Yet, depending on rates set by commodity markets each month, prices can shift from as low as $15 per ton in 2008 to the recent price of $120 per ton.
The agency is tasked with keeping its $7.2 million budget in the black, lest it’s unable to continue service. In fiscal year 2014, the agency collected only $773,500 in revenue for the sale of recyclable material. Compare that to the $5.4 million it made the same year for landfill tipping fees—aka tossing trash—and it’s easy to understand that there’s more money to be made in rubbish than recycling with what’s being collected. The agency maintains millions in its reserves, but the New Mexico Environment Department requires that landfill operators save funds for emergencies like a fire.
And the agency is budgeting bigger bucks for capital costs on the landfill than it is in its recycling operation. For the 2015 fiscal year, it budgeted $1.2 million for landfill equipment—a new $1 million landfill compactor and $200,000 for GPS monitoring systems—while it’s investing half as much on recycling plant equipment—$390,000 for a new glass pulverizer and $200,000 for a dust suppression system.
Schlachter walks down the stairway of the line and carefully outside the warehouse as the tractors and trucks whiz by. Nearby, a blue recycling truck slowly opens its rear door and dumps its load of glass on a pile of more broken glass, creating a piercing sound of continuous ocean waves. Cardboard and other material pollutes the glass pile, and Schlachter explains that two workers must then hand-sort the glass into the hopper of a pulverizing machine sitting outside the facility, which spits out the cullet consisting of shards of glass mixed with finer sand-sized particles, as if it was returned to its original form. Recently, the agency had to award an emergency contract to the private company that makes the machine, as the parts break down occasionally, and Schlachter says the new pulverizer the agency might buy will be able to process more glass.
Each of the city’s recycling trucks collects two loads: One is just for glass containers while the other is for all of the rest of the recyclables. That’s creating troublesome inefficiencies for the city’s recycling fleet, points out the consultant’s report, for two reasons: If one part of a truck becomes full, it must return to BuRRT for unloading, even if the other compartment isn’t at capacity. Moreover, two separate loads in a truck also means it must unload at the facility twice, cutting down on route collection.
Currently, residents are supplied two recycling bins. Leidos recommends that instead of having one driver and two recycling loaders for each rear-loading truck, the city invest more than $2.4 million buying new bins for residents and for upfront capital costs in side-loading trucks that would pick up the bins with an automated arm.That’s part of the impetus for officials with the consulting firm Leidos Engineering and the city to suggest that Santa Fe move to what’s known as “single-stream” recycling, which would allow residents to toss all their recyclable material into one wheeled, garbage-sized bin. Proponents say it would allow city recycling workers to decrease route time, both at BuRRT and at the curbside, and make it easier on citizens to recycle, increasing participation. Other cities that have moved to single-stream recycling have seen impressive increases in recycling rates.
The consultants accompanied workers on recycling routes and noted that the two workers who load the trucks by hand faced safety hazards in dealing with the glass. The automated side-arm trucks would entirely eliminate the need for those employees, allowing one driver for one truck. While the costs of the new bins and trucks would hit the city hard in the short term, the city could be saving money in the long term, the consultants assert.
“We would support single stream,” Schlachter says of a yet-to-be-introduced City Council proposal by Bushee and Signe Lindell that would make the change. “It’s just that we’re not equipped to handle it.”
The specific dilemma: BuRRT’s sorting and baling machinery inside the warehouse doesn’t have a glass sorting component on the line, which is why residents must separate it from the rest of the recyclables. To move to single-stream recycling, BuRRT might have to spend millions upfront for new machinery and possibly expand its warehouse because the current one is relatively small.
Both Bushee and Gonzales take umbrage, however, to the assertion that BuRRT wouldn’t be able to invest in new equipment to sort recycling in a single-stream system. Says Gonzales: “I won’t accept the premise of SWaMa saying ‘No, because we don’t have the infrastructure.’ I think we cost it out, figure out how to make the investment, and we do it.”
Schlachter says that if the city wants SWaMa to invest in a single-stream recycling system, his agency is going to have to increase the tipping fees it charges to collect both trash and recyclables, which might force the city to increase the monthly fees it charges citizens for curbside pickup. (What happens, after all, if the very agency that collects waste goes in the red?) Bushee tells SFR she’s wary about increasing fees to move to single-stream. Starting July 1, the city increased collection fees slightly. With a five percent tax factored into the equation, residents must now pay a total of $14.14 monthly for both trash and recycling pickup, says Garcia, amounting to nearly $170 annually for each of Santa Fe’s 27,413 residential customers.
The other solution, one proffered by the consulting firm, is to remove glass from the curbside pickup program, forcing residents to either toss it, drop it off at designated recycling centers or pay additional costs for its collection.
Either one of those methods might reduce Santa Fe’s recycling rate, which measures the weight of waste diverted to reuse: Glass is one of the heaviest recyclables BuRRT collects.
Garcia asserts the 8.4 percent recycling rate doesn’t represent the diversion being conducted in the private sector, including that of companies that pick up recyclables from households and businesses and truck them out of the county.
“There is a lot of materials that’s being diverted that’s not being calculated into that rate,” he says. “You’ve got mulch. You’ve got cars, recycled cars; you’ve got private companies recycling cans, aluminum, copper; you know you’ve got big-box stores recycling cardboard, baling and sending it back. So there’s really a lot of recycled materials that doesn’t get counted in that diversion percentage.”
"We can do anything, given money and the return on investment."
Garcia is also excited about a contract the city entered into with a nonprofit called Reunity Resources, which just started collecting food scraps from commercial establishments for a fee and delivering that waste to Paynes Organic Soil Yard, which composts the organics and resells the end product.
Tejinder Ciano, executive director of the nonprofit, says since the project started in April, it successfully diverted 150,000 pounds of food waste, “which equates to 75,000 pounds of CO2 that’s been mitigated.”
Still, that project faces the same problem as glass collection: There’s not a large market for organic material in the area. Ciano nevertheless remains hopeful, saying it’s already diverted about a tenth of a percentage point of waste that would have gone to the landfill.
As for the glass, Schlachter has been working with one company, Growstone, which has an Albuquerque facility that turns glass into products used for planting, such as soil aerators. The company has been BuRRT’s biggest glass customer to date. He’s attempting to get a long-term contract with the company but can’t make many moves on it now because he’s not sure what kind of glass the facility will be receiving.
For now, however, there’s a temporary use for some of the excess glass. Officials have been busy blasting away thousands of cubic yards of basalt rock at Caja Del Rio landfill. The construction of the new cell will help lengthen the life of the landfill to keep it up with the 300 million pounds of trash it collects annually—5.5 pounds of waste per resident per day. The agency estimates that it will spend over $5 million to construct the new cell. In a bid that’s due this month, companies are vying to be selected by the entity to use some of that glass as a lining for the landfill to help prevent contamination.
Schlachter says the agency is prepared to make whatever changes the community requests. The more waste diverted away from the landfill to recycling increases the life of the landfill, along with revenue generated from selling recyclables. But changes pose new costs that the entire community would have to cover. Even under the current curbside and collection system, SWaMA is able to take more recyclables—but that takes increased participation from residents and businesses. “We have no control over the volume of material that comes into SWaMA operations,” Schlachter says. “All we can do is deal with it when it gets here.”
“We can do anything,” he adds, “given money and the return on investment.”
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Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the City of Santa Fe's recycling rate was half that of the state of New Mexico's 2013 recycling rate. Santa Fe's recycling rate is half that of New Mexico's 2012 recycling rate, not 2013. The New Mexico Environment Department hasn't released statewide 2013 data yet.