Recycling: Your Curbside Bin

Recycling is a concept both Albuquerque residents and the city support…to a degree. But really, where do such things as plastic, paper and food waste go?

The recycling of plastic is in general a misnomer. Probably the only plastics you use which are being recycled are those with the triangular mark of 1 or 2, (large quart or gallon water bottles) and currently #5 but Albuquerque takes all plastics in our bins and say that none go to our landfill. After sorting, they are hauled off by Waste Connections which takes it to a BARCO site. Then the plastics being recycled depend upon the resale market at the time. Do not put anything you want recycled into plastic bags as they will clog the automated sorting machines and be tossed to the landfill unopened. There is confusion as to what is ultimately happening to large, solid and colored plastics.

Photo: Sigmund Al / unsplash

Other countries, such as China, do not want to buy our plastics any longer. One of the reasons for the downturn is the already limited market for recycled plastic because it is cheaper to make plastic nurdles (small plastic pellets) for new manufacturing than to reuse the recycled plastic. In fact 90% of the plastic we use is from recently manufactured nurdles (now considered globally as a persistent chemical contaminant). Making new plastic is an oil and gas business; since the onset of fracking with the increased availability of ethylene, the plastic industry has been booming. In fact, poly resins and compounds brought in $290 billion in revenue for Exon Mobil in 2021. The NM Recycling Coalition has a video, “Taking Action on Plastic Waste” made in 2021 that is well worth watching. The talk on this video by Alexis Goldsmith spells out the link between plastic and the oil and gas industry where they are an alternative stream of revenue. NMRC’s message is to Refuse, Reduce, Reuse. Recycling is the last thing you want to do. The Plastic Waste Reduction Act, introduced in this year’s legislative session, was not passed.

Paper and cardboard are the most frequently recycled items in this bin. Until recently the Friedman Company had been the waste management company with the city contract. They shredded around 120,000 tons per year from the mid Rio Grande counties. The shred is transported to Virginia where it is repurposed as “recycled paper.” Paper can’t be recycled forever as the threads shorten eventually and it does not hold together.

The other common curbside bin is for garbage. This all goes to landfills. The largest landfill in NM is the Cerro Colorado on the West side of Albuquerque. It is an engineered landfill with a sealed plastic lining and covering, a “dry tomb” as the industry calls it. The purpose of the sealing is to prevent water from getting in. Water, mixed with the organic matter in the landfill, creates biogas which is in part methane. Since the concentration of methane in biogas is low compared to the concentration in wells from fracking, it is not useful in industry. However the county is piping some of the biogas to heat the boiler at the Metropolitan Detention Center. The rest of the biogas being flared complies with air quality permits.

The City manages nine closed landfills in order to prevent potential gas buildup, fires, and explosions. The largest is the Los Angeles landfill which was originally a gravel pit. It was closed in 1984 but due to its size, there are 64 wells capturing biogas which then is piped to a flare. General Obligation bonds pay for this needed management.

Courtesy, City of Albuquerque, Environmental Health Department.

There is controversy about venting vs. flaring. Both are bad for the environment. If venting, all the methane goes into the atmosphere but with flaring, the methane is converted to carbon dioxide which goes into the atmosphere. Since methane is multiple times worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, flaring is considered best for the management of biogas from landfills as the lesser of two evils. A better idea would be to decrease the need for landfills: eat your food and compost the remainders!

Recycling: non Curbside

One of the things we can do to recharge our aquifer is to let rain water percolate into the soil by removing hard surfaces as Concrete and asphalt wherever possible. Both are recycled in much the same way. First the hard surface must be broken up. You might need to rent a jack hammer if a sledgehammer won’t do. Once the impervious surface is chunked, the rubble can be loaded into a pickup and taken to one of many sites in Albuquerque where you can recycle concrete and asphalt. The hard surface needs to be clean and without rebar. Some recyclers are free, so call around. The recyclers crush the asphalt to make a “road base” powder which is than mixed with fresh asphalt for paving. Concrete after crushing is repurposed by mixing with cement to make fresh concrete.

Now you can begin the process of rebuilding the compacted dirt into useable soil. Building Soil article gives you some ideas as to how to go about this.

Hazardous Waste disposal is located at 6137 Edith NE where you can drop off waste 8:30-4:30 M, W, F, and Saturday 8-3.They currently contract with Advanced Chem Transport who pickup at 17 different sites in the SW on their way back to San Jose, CA. They take things which will explode, corrode, are flammable, or poisonous to animals and people. But what happens to our hazardous waste when it leaves New Mexico for California?

The state of California has a Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) which promulgates rules for generators of waste, transporters, and disposal sites. The largest toxic waste site in the US is the 1,600 acre Kettleman Hills Landfill located in the San Joaquin Valley in the midst of poor farm workers’ towns. It is the only landfill which will dispose of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) which are highly carcinogenic compounds and now banned in US. People in the small town of Kettleman feel they have been impacted health-wise by this landfill and are fighting for more research on the number of birth defects in their community and against the installation of an incinerator on the site. Interestingly, some CA transporters are taking their waste to Utah and Arizona which have weaker landfill laws. Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t work. The bottom line is that toxic waste remains toxic. In our homes we can cut the use of toxice chemicals. Some examples would be to use sandpaper when refinishing wood or metal instead of chemicals and spraying liquid soap on plants to deter insects instead of pesticides..

Glass recycling takes more effort on our part. The City of Albuquerque lists10 sites across the city where glass may be dropped into a yellow recycle bin. The locations and hours change occasionally, so check the website first. Clear glass jars and bottles get repurposed by the current contractor in Texas, but window glass, colored glass, drinking glasses, and pyrex cannot be recycled as they have other materials in them.

e-Waste refers to electronic material that can be reused, refurbished or recycled at another location. This recycler takes computers, printers, Fax machines, stereo equipment, cell phones, cameras, etc. For a complete list, see the City of Albuquerque. By recycling these items you decrease Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury in the environment. These three heavy metals have been shown to have significant health effects on humans and animals. To recycle these items the drop off is at 6301 Eagle Rock NE near the intersection of I 25 and Alameda. They are open 8-5 seven days a week.     

There is now a Styrofoam (Expanded Polystyrene-EPS) recycler in Albuquerque called the Foam Recycler at 6204 2nd NW, Unit D where you may drop off clean Styrofoam sheets, clean take out containers, and polyethylene. He then crushes and compresses to make it into blocks. EPS cannot be used again for food containers but is used for door frames, garden furniture, roofing tile, etc. He will also collect from industrial locations in the mid Rio Grande Counties.

Packing peanuts are not recyclable. If they are white or pink, wrap them in a bag and put them in the trash. If they are green, they are biodegradable and if not reusing, you may bury them.