Recycling Rationalization

January 30, 2009

By Steve Klinger

There seems to be a disconnect between what advocates and officials involved in city and regional recycling efforts say and the day-to-day reality facing southern New Mexico residents who want to dispose of their household wastes responsibly.

The public relations arms of the city and the new South Central Recycling Partnership tout the area’s recycling efforts publicly while the bureaucracies that run the actual programs accommodate their own priorities far more diligently than they do the needs of residents.

Las Cruces backed away from curbside recycling a couple of years ago after questionable pilot studies indicated residents did not want to pay for the limited choice of pickup services the city was prepared to offer. Instead, funds were used to add extra drop-off bins for newspapers, corrugated cardboard and aluminum – but not plastic. Those with plastic recyclables were told to take their items to the West Amador Recycling Center or the newer Foothills Landfill facility on the East Mesa. And glass has never been accepted at any city facilities, with the explanation given that there is no market for selling it.

The West Amador Facility has long been accepting yard waste (tree limbs, brush, grass clippings and leaves), where it is processed by city chipper machines and hauled to Foothills for composting. But the city announced last month that yard waste will be accepted only at Foothills after Feb. 28, thus compelling west side residents either to pay to dump their yard waste at the West Amador transfer station or else haul it all the way across town through the city’s worst traffic to Foothills.

I contacted city, county and South Central Solid Waste Authorities about the yard waste change and was told by the city and SCSWA that most of the yard waste is generated on the rapidly growing east side, which seems counterintuitive since most of the trees and brush grow closer to the river. (They said they had studies but no one provided me with one.) Further, they told me they need the space at the West Amador Recycling Center to expand regional recycling programs, which will be coordinated by SCSWA, and the switch will save money because the city was having to transport 50-100 loads a month of chipped yard waste from West Amador to Foothills for composting and then bring the compost back. I was invited to a monthly SCRaP meeting to learn more.

What I learned was that there’s plenty of space around the West Amador facility (if not right in the yard) and no good reason I was made aware of why yard waste can’t be collected at both locations. What I learned was that it’s all about budget and image. How big could the Earth Day display be and what wording could be used in the city’s upcoming newsletter piece to avoid saying the city was postponing the start of single stream curbside recycling? How could we all work together to grow the culture of recycling while putting a smiley face on the curtailment of services?

I learned too about the unfortunate collapse of regional and international markets for paper, metal and plastic, and I do understand that budgets must be met and resources used efficiently.

But the questions I brought were never answered: How does it make sense to close a yard waste facility that the city solid waste administrator admitted was backed up with traffic on Saturdays and make residents drive an extra 10-20 miles round trip, with their pickups and their trailers, clogging traffic on Amador and Lohman and Telshor, burning extra fuel and inevitably casting their stray branches and leaves for motorists behind them to deal with? What about all the extra burning that will take place when farmers and residents face the choice of a ridiculous trip all the way through town or torching their leaves and tree limbs? Is this a sustainable solution for a city that just signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to reduce its non-renewable energy use and find green solutions? (The city manager said in an e-mail he’d look into the location change. I never heard back.)

And why was there no public input before this major change in policy? Where is the respect for public opinion when so many people are affected? Why has not a single council member spoken up about this issue?

Frankly, long before this new policy, we had found the West Amador facility a most unpleasant place to do recycling. We’ve always joked about the Recycling Nazis who seem to spend most of their time standing around looking for something put in the wrong bin or some false move by a resident trying to use the facility. Hold it, there, Mister, you’ve got to take those leaves out of the bag. Wait, that log is too thick, put it back in your truck. No way, we don’t take those plastic containers, even if they are Number 2 – no opaque plastics.  Sorry, you’ve got to flatten that cardboard.

The hours have been another deterrent.  While most residents want to recycle on weekends, the West Amador Center closes at three on Saturday (it used to be one) and is closed Sundays. It closes at four on weekdays. The Foothills Center now has the same hours. What are they, banks? Isn’t it clear that to encourage recycling it’s smart to make it easier for residents to do it, not harder? Why is there always the feeling that they’re doing us a favor?

Cities smaller than Las Cruces and more remote from major markets have somehow found the resources for single stream curbside recycling. Counties have seen it as their responsibility to provide services to encourage recycling, save landfill space and protect the environment for the sake of future generations. Twenty-million-dollar county buildings are nice, but solid waste services are a little more important.

As an attendee at the last Progressive Voter Alliance meeting said in exasperation after an update on the recycling changes was presented, “The recycling program is a sham!” The room burst into applause.

We are still well back in the 20th century, in government attitudes as well as facilities. Heaven forbid that a sanitation worker might have to cut up a cardboard box or pull the glossy inserts out of a newspaper. Stay open at the times people want to use the recycling facilities and maintain convenient locations? Sorry, show up when and where it’s convenient for us.

As far as I’m concerned, the system’s not all right, and it’s bad enough we have to convince our leaders to wake up to responsible 21st-century waste disposal and recycling programs.
But don’t insult our intelligence with the hypocrisy of projecting an image of a gung-ho, go-green community when the reality is clearly a culture of bureaucrats and sullen sanitation workers who rationalize every obstacle they put in the paths of residents who want to recycle.

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