Rising Cost of Recycling

As China stiffens buying practices, Santa Fe must swallow price increase

Santa Fe’s recyclables get trucked to Albuquerque for sorting, and officials say now it’s more important that loads are not contaminated with trash, food, Styrofoam or other no-nos. (Justin Horwath)

On trash day, you also roll your blue recycle cart out to the curb, having done your best to sort out plastic bottles, cans and paper. This simple act, replicated thousands of times across Santa Fe and millions of times across the country, is our only contact with the vast international recycling industry that has recently been thrown into complete chaos by Chinese President Xi Jinping 6,600 miles from Santa Fe.

The change is already costing Santa Fe city and county governments real money, and the future of the recycling system as we now think we know it is up in the air.

Following the local decision to close a sorting facility on Santa Fe's west side, the majority of recyclables in the blue cart here were trucked to Albuquerque, sorted by workers, baled up and shipped to California ports where they were loaded onto container ships bound for China to be processed and made into new products.

This was how recycling was done all over the Western US until July, when Xi launched a campaign against what he calls yang laji, or "foreign garbage." New Mexico and the rest of the Western United States had become almost completely dependent on China to buy our recyclables, and adjustments hit the local market early this year.

The bales of material going to China under the near-ban contained about 5 percent contaminants, even after manual sorting by teams of workers in Albuquerque and elsewhere. Once in China, that unusable material—millions of tons, according to Xi's figures—had to be sent to Chinese landfills to combine with the waste of 1.4 billion Chinese people.

China will still buy recyclable plastic, metal and some paper from us, but now it has to be 99.5 percent pure; without food residue, plastic bags, Styrofoam or other contamination. To achieve that level of purity, recycling companies like Friedman Recycling, which processes most of New Mexico's recycling from municipal waste streams, has had to slow down its sorting lines and add 55 new employees, greatly increasing costs. Materials that China will no longer accept are fast piling up as Friedman searches for new markets.

Where Friedman Recycling used to pay Santa Fe for recyclables, it will now charge for processing and Santa Fe will have to landfill any rejected materials. Friedman warns it might also stop accepting some materials altogether. "The old model will no longer work in the Western US; it is unsustainable," Randall Kippenbrock, executive director at the Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency, told the city/county joint powers board on March 15. The agency is facing a $450,000 cost increase this year because of the closing of the Chinese markets, and will have to pay Friedman recycling $160,000 to process materials just up until June of this year.

"Costs are currently exorbitant and we can no longer operate under our current contract," David Friedman, who co-manages the company with his brother Morris, told the board, noting some limited markets for paper and metal exist in the Southeast but trucking material is too expensive.

The board agreed the program is a high priority and amended its four-year contract to allow the business to recoup processing costs each month. "The recycling program is a loss leader," said City Councilor Michael Harris. "But a budget increase to Friedman is not a budget-buster for us."

Kippenbrock said he would next propose a rate increase for the an estimated 33,000 to help defray the increased cost of recycling. County residents don't enjoy curbside pickup provided by the government, but instead take recyclables to drop-off locations.

County Commissioner Anna Hansen urged the board to find alternatives, but Kippenbrock said there's likely no better financial outlook since Friedman is the only option. "We have to keep in mind we are a small city in a rural part of the country with great shipping distances," he said.

"Things are not recyclable if there is no market for it," said Morris Friedman. "Municipalities are going to have to focus on the quality of material being produced. We are hopeful that within a couple of years new recyclable markets will open up to replace China; in Latin America, Southeast Asia, India or in the US."

He emphasized the company is dedicated to keeping recycling systems in New Mexico functioning, but said it needs help. "We want everyone to keep recycling but to focus on keeping contaminants out of the recycling bins. … We need to really focus on the quality of what we recycle."

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