Zero Waste Recycling Tour

By Carol Chamberland
Central NM Group Zero Waste Action Team

Our group began in July 2018 with the idea of promoting a greener Albuquerque. We focused on recycling as an area where we might be able to have a positive impact, but quickly realized that we needed more information. We embarked on an educational focus by speaking with professionals and researching related topics. Our little group continued to grow. Jill Holbert, associate director of Solid Waste Management Department, came to speak with us in October. She reported that Albuquerque has a 20% residential recycling rate. Its website still reflects the old plan and goals; the new administration hopes to review a proposed plan before adopting it.

Their accomplishments to date:

  • closed the city processing facility and moved comingled recycling to the Friedman facility, which has greater capacity
  • initiated curbside recycling city-wide, doubling the volume to 38,000 tons per year
  • offers pickup services to commercial businesses on a voluntary basis
  • now focusing on outreach and education via social-media campaigns
  • green waste is picked up twice annually
  • Recyclothes collects and delivers used clothing to the APS homeless children’s bank
  • glass recycling has contamination issues and few markets
  • there is currently no reporting of overall recycling volume in the city

In December, we took a tour of the city’s recycling contractor, Friedman Recycling. After donning hardhats, neon vests and goggles, we watched the city trucks dumping recycled materials and workers loading it onto conveyor belts, where it is sorted automatically. When plastic bags wind up in the mix, workers do their best to pull them out as they whiz by, but inevitably, some bags get into the machinery and jam it to a standstill. The workflow stops while the machine gets unstuck and restarted.

When we asked about China no longer taking our recycled materials, we expected to hear about layoffs and the loss of jobs. On the contrary, our guide told us they hired more people to make a cleaner end product. They have no shortage of customers for their bales of sorted recyclables, but the increased labor costs result in virtually no profit margin for Friedman and the city. Our takeaway that day: Don’t put plastic bags in your recycling bin. They can be recycled at most grocery stores. They are then made into more plastic bags. Better yet, stop using plastic bags altogether.

On a cold and windy day in January, we toured Soilutions, an organics-recycling facility in the South Valley. They process yard waste, horse manure and food waste into rich compost, which they sell for a profit. We strolled among pyramids of compostable materials in varying degrees of becoming soil. They offer pickup services for food-processing facilities so that their food waste becomes compost instead of going into the landfill and generating methane gas. Our Zero Waste Action Team envisions a time when composting becomes an official city policy and companies like Soilutions are an integral part of the process.

Kudos to the youngsters of the Global Warming Express, who appeared before Albuquerque’s City Council, on a school night in January, to present their case against the proliferation of plastic bags. Their powerful testimony compelled four councilors to draft the Clean and Green Retail Ordinance, a ban on single-use plastic bags and other non-recyclable items such as Styrofoam takeout containers. The resolution went before the Council’s Finance Committee, where the youngsters appeared again to make their case. Zero Waste Albuquerque Team members were on hand to speak in support of the proposal. The ordinance is awaiting financial analysis of the issues. We will be on hand again to support the proposal April 15, when the City Council considers it.

Our research has yielded examples of cities doing things right or getting things terribly wrong. We’ve learned that plastics are a much bigger problem than we’d initially realized. We found other groups in town working along similar lines, and we hope to join forces with them.

We continue to educate ourselves with tours and speakers. This month we’ll have a presentation by Ralph Wrons, who recently headed up the recycling program for Sandia Labs. Next month, we’ll visit the city’s Water Treatment facility. We hope to visit a glass-recycling plant as well as an electronics recycler in the near future.

Now we’re getting into action. After much discussion, we’ve arrived at a list of concrete action items and designated people to work on each one. Our monthly meetings provide lively discussions and thoughtful solutions. Our group represents a wide range of ages and backgrounds. We welcome energetic volunteers with creative ideas for minimizing our impact on the planet. If you want to get involved, contact Carol Chamberland at pictografix@comcast.net.

Photo by Cecilia Chávez Beltrán

Zero Waste Recycling Tour