Beyond the blue bin
A trip through Durango's recycling stream
It’s a question repeated again and again: what happens to items recycled in Durango? There is no lack of theories: some say the material ends up in a landfill anyway; others speculate it’s sent to China to be repurposed into Barbies and Kens; and the most commonly repeated refrain: it goes to Albuquerque to get incinerated.
“It does go to Albuquerque,” Marty Pool, the city’s sustainability manager, said. “It does not get burned.”
Recycling has always been a hot topic around town. Because of Durango’s relative geographic isolation, not located near an interstate, it’s expensive to make sure our disposed items are salvaged. Often, questions are raised about the ultimate environmental benefit of recycling.
But rest assured, city officials say, your recycling efforts are not futile. Recently, the City of Durango entered a new contract with a new company in Albuquerque for recycling services. And, the city is planning an audit to make sure all materials are actually being recycled.
“We now have the opportunity to request that information,” Joey Medina, the city’s public works operations manager, said. “And in that report, we can see where our recycled items are going, who they’re sold to and what it’s being reprocessed into.”
Bin to ‘Burque
To understand the recycling stream, let’s start at the beginning. After you finish that refreshing PBR or boba tea and place it in the blue bin for the city to pick up, what happens? (For our purposes here, we’re focusing solely on single-stream recycling material.)
Medina said those items are taken to the Durango Recycling Center at the Tech Center, where they get sorted to remove contaminated items (you know, the stuff you weren’t supposed to put in the recycling).
Then, recycled items are baled up and put in stacks to be picked up and driven an estimated 215 miles to a processing facility in Albuquerque. There, the items are reprocessed and sorted by material (plastic, steel, aluminum, paper, etc.).
Then, that company looks for other companies on the open market that want to buy the material and repurpose it for whatever goods they are selling. Aluminum, for instance, can easily be remade into cans.
The vast majority of items recycled are not, as some believe, burned or thrown into landfills, Medina said.
“That’s not the case,” he said. “They don’t give out companies they give materials to, because that’s sort of insider information. But they give logistical sources of where it’s going to market and whether it’s domestic or foreign.”
A costly process
For years, the city contracted with a Phoenix-based company called Friedman Recycling. In late 2022, however, Friedman sold its Albuquerque (and El Paso) assets to Waste Connections, based in Dallas. The company operates under the name “BARCO,” an acronym for Borderlands and Albuquerque Recycling Co.
Representatives with Waste Connections did not return requests for comment on this story. According to its website, Waste Connections is a national corporation that has more than 400 operations across the United States.
As mentioned above, with the new contract, the City of Durango now has the ability to request an audit to make sure recycled items are going to good use. Medina said the city is gearing up to request that information in the coming weeks.
“(Waste Connections) is all on board,” he said. “There’s nothing hidden there.”
Indeed, Pool said he and Medina went down recently to tour the facility, and it all checked out. “We saw the facility with our own eyes; unless it was all a big smoke and mirror show,” Pool joked.
Medina said the shift to Waste Connections has been relatively seamless. The biggest difference, however, has been significant increases in processing fees in the past couple months. Previously, it cost $25 a ton to process materials. Now, it’s $155 a ton.
The reason? Medina said it all plays into how much it costs to process materials, as well as the market for reselling recycled material. Right now, companies are overstocked and can’t take more, he said.
“There’s just a lot of material out there,” Medina said. “The recycling market is not in the greatest shape, and resell is hard.”
As for the increased processing cost, that might lead to higher fees for city residents.
“There’s no fee increase planned for 2024, but we’re starting to kick around the idea,” he said. “Because at some point, if fees continue to grow to process material, we might need to.”
A worthy endeavor
So, with all the costs, as well as carbon footprint, associated with taking Durango’s recycled items to Albuquerque, is the environmental cost-benefit worth it? Pool said, undoubtedly, yes.
“Recycling definitely has its place in the grand scheme of materials management,” he said. “But it does take some individual commitment.”
Recycling, like anything, is nuanced, Pool said. Some items, like aluminum, fiber, paper and steel, are easily recyclable and in demand on the open market. Also keep in mind, Pool said, materials like aluminum and steel have to be mined and are finite.
Plastic, on the other hand, is a whole other beast. Some plastics are recyclable and worth the effort, others are not. As a result, only a small fraction of plastic is ultimately recycled. A recent Greenpeace report found that the amount of plastic transformed into new items in the U.S. is at about 5-6%. Pool said poor quality plastic that’s recycled in Durango could have the same fate.
“There are major issues with recycling, but people take issues they heard that are specific around plastic and extend it in their mind to all recycling, and that’s not true at all,” he said.
“But you can’t say the whole system is broken if just plastics are an issue. Some other pieces work pretty darn well.”
For starters, to maximize recycling’s efficiency, it’s important to make sure you are recycling the right items, Pool said. It’s rare that a batch is so contaminated that it gets thrown into the landfill, but it does happen. (Looking at you, people who throw half-empty ranch dressing bottles into recycling).
In fact, the system is built to take into account people not recycling correctly, whether through ignorance, naivety or a fun new term we learned, “wish-cycling,” which is when you toss something into the recycling bin, hoping it can be recycled, even if you’re not sure if it’s actually recyclable.
Higher rates of contamination bog down facilities and make the system less efficient and, therefore, more expensive to operate.
“You really gum up the works if you’re not doing your part as an individual,” Pool said.
Medina said he did not have the city’s contamination rate, though that will be part of the audit.
A sea change
Long-term, there are some exciting things on the state level happening on the recycling front. While a new state law putting a 10 cent charge on plastic bags got all the attention, a far more transformational piece of legislation (HB-22-1355) could have monumental impacts.
Venissa Ledesma, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the new legislation created a “Circular Action Alliance,” which will establish a centralized system for managing recycling in the state. It also will include free recycling of packaging and paper for all Coloradans.
By January 2024, the Circular Action Alliance will complete a needs assessment to evaluate recycling infrastructure and services throughout the state. Following that, the alliance will develop a plan to implement the recycling program to best serve Coloradans. The program is estimated to be fully operational by January 2026.
Pool said the concept is similar to how paint is recycled in Colorado. In 2015, the Architectural Paint Stewardship Act created PaintCare, a nonprofit organization, to collect unused paint in Colorado at no cost to residents.
“Ultimately the idea is that fees on common recycled materials will 100% fund recycling infrastructure in Colorado,” he said. “It is a sea change. It’s an extremely monumental shift in how recycling is funded in the state.”
In the meantime, make sure your recycling is right. And keep your unfinished ranch dressing out of the stream.
By the numbers: In 2022, recycling cost the City of Durango $114,180 in fees. This year, to date, we’re at $123,960 because of price increases. On average, the city sends 115-120 loads of recycled material a year. This year, we’re at 58 loads so far. A load carries about 20-22 tons. For all recycled material, the city sent down 3,300 tons in 2020. In 2022, we sent down 4,275 tons.