For the past nine years, the team at the Buckman Road Recycling & Transfer Station has quietly soldiered on, sorting and processing Santa Fe’s waste. From hazardous waste to car tires, they take what residents cast aside and find the right place for its future life.
But a significant shift in how the center processes recycling, among other factors, will force the waste management agency to charge more for disposal for the first time in nearly a decade. The county commissioners and city councilors who represent their two jurisdictions on the Solid Waste Management Agency Joint Powers Board approved the funding step last Thursday, guaranteeing a rate increase for all incoming waste at both the Caja del Rio Landfill and BuRRT facility.
The cost increases take effect in October and increase incrementally for the following three years to meet the budgetary needs, while working to make up for additional, unexpected recycling charges the agency has incurred since 2019.
Rates per load brought to the landfill or transfer station will cost an additional $2.50 to $90, depending on the type of waste, but how the increase will translate to most consumers who only deal with city collections remains to be seen. The City Council and County Commission will decide later whether to pass on the extra costs to users, though the city estimates residents will not see collection rate increase until January 2022.
“It’s not a hard-and-fast date, just the current target,” Shirlene Sitton, director of Santa Fe’s Environmental Service Division, writes to SFR in an email.
The increase comes courtesy of several pressures.
China’s ban on importing raw recycling in 2017 from high waste-producing nations like the United States, Canada and those in the European Union is one. Around the time of that announcement, the US produced roughly 38 million metric tons of plastic waste a year.
Previously, waste managers happily sent recycling to China on empty container ships making their return journey across the Pacific Ocean, where the materials found new life as recycled plastic products.
But the sudden shift put US cities and counties in an awkward position. Now that their recycling programs were no longer financially viable, what to do with all that waste?
“Some communities, back in 2019 and I’m sure through 2020, they shut down their recycling program,” Randall Kippenbrock, executive director of Santa Fe Solid Waste Management, tells SFR. That would-be recycled paper and plastic ended up in the landfill.
Instead of dumping the county’s recycling program, Santa Fe’s waste managers opted to dip into their savings to continue the service. But maintaining that practice carried a hefty price tag: $2 million.
In May of 2019, instead of shipping all recyclable materials to Friedman Recycling of Albuquerque—as BuRRT had done for years—the agency reopened its Material Recycling Facility after four years of closure due to unsustainable operations costs. The “MeRF,” first opened in 2007, enabled the site to process mixed paper and some mixed container waste, which includes sorting and baling the materials.
“The old model was: We can take your material for little or nothing because we know we’ll make our money on the back end,” Kippenbrock explains. “Now today, the recycling model is: We need to charge you up front to make sure we are going to recover our cost.”
The cost will only be passed on to consumers who already pay for waste collection; dropping off recycling at the center on Buckman Road remains free.
“Recycling is intermittently increasing,” Kippenbrock told the joint powers board. “About two years ago we were looking at 9,400 tons. Last year it was around 10,400; the last 12 months is just over 11,000 tons.” But with the increase in recycled materials came more contamination—largely in the form of food scraps, green waste and wood mixing with the plastics and other inert recyclables—which Kippenbrock estimates has increased as much as 10% since 2020.
The past year has challenged the city’s waste collection team, says Sitton. The pandemic caused a sharp decline in commercial waste, which in turn led to an uptick in residential collection.
“The big discussion among the solid waste world really is, how permanent is this shift gonna be?” Sitton tells SFR, adding that the stress on the recycling business emerged from an increase in packaging.
“We did a lot of online shopping,” she says. “I personally have cardboard piling up every week.”
Recycling crews noted the change in the set-out rate—the percentage of households that put out bins on collection day—which hovered around 50% before the pandemic and soared to 90% in some neighborhoods.
Alongside the recycling pressure, aging equipment and inflation of operation costs necessitate the agency’s rate increase. But the future profitability and sustainability of the county’s recycling program depends on how meticulously Santa Feans can dispose of their waste.
“If you can get everyone on board,” says Kippenbrock, “then you can have a very successful program that can probably lower your cost.”