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City of El Paso spends $8M a year on recycling, but much of what’s collected ends up in landfills

EL PASO, Texas -- El Paso's recycling program is costing taxpayers roughly $8 million per year, but nearly a third of what is collected from the city's blue bins ends up in the landfill as trash, according data obtained by ABC-7 from the City of El Paso.

The data shows El Paso's blue bin contamination rate -- material collected that is not recyclable -- was 28% for the last fiscal year. But that number is up to 32% so far this fiscal year, which began in September 2020.

Simply put, 32% of what is currently collected from the blue bins is not actually recyclable material.

The City of El Paso only collects the following as recycling: paper, cardboard, plastic, aluminum and tin.

The city is contracted with Friedman Recycling Company to sort and pack the recyclables Environmental Services Department trucks collect. Any non-recyclable items sorted at the recycling plant is considered a residual. For FY20, 24,992 tons were collected from blue bins at residences and taken to Friedman Recycling Co. But 7,008 tons of materials collected was trash sent to the landfill.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser supports the continuation of the recycling program despite its cost because of its long term benefits.

"We have about 189,000 blue bins," Leeser said. "If you think about that, you would take those blue bins and put them in the landfills. So what happens to your landfills today? They start filling up. In the future we have no place for landfills. So it's really important for the future of our city and it's really important for the quality of life in El Paso."

That same 2018 audit states the recycling program has "not been successful since its inception" in 2007. "In that time, the City has invested about $68 million and has only saved about eight months’ worth of landfill space," the audit reads. "The program was started to reduce waste that enters the landfill and contribute to the preservation of the environment in a long-term and cost effective manner."

The city says at the current rate of collections and contaminations it would take 17 years for every one year's worth of landfill space saved.

Changes have been made to the program since the audit. The City of El Paso launched 'Blue Every Two' last year, picking up blue cans on a bi-weekly schedule instead of weekly.

The operational cost of the recycling program is down more than $2.3 million from FY18 to FY20.

"Most people were not filling [their blue bin] in one week, so we were trying to not go every week," Mayor Leeser said. "When we went down to every other week it actually did not cut down the amount of recyclables we were collecting every other week."

The data supports that -- there was less than a one percent difference in recycling collections from FY19 to FY20.

Changes to the recycling program would ultimately rest in the hands of city council. ABC-7 reached out to every representative with the same questions: Do you support the current continuation of the city's recycling program at its current cost? If not, what do you propose?

Of the eight council members, only three responded.

Peter Svarzbein, District 1:

"Recycling should be viewed as an essential City service no different than providing  clean water or public safety, and be treated as such.  When recycling services were impacted due to Covid-19, our offices saw the feedback from community members reaching out, pleading for the return of recycling and showing up in force at our regional recycling centers. We should not be entertaining the idea of cutting services, but rather improving how those dollars are spent. This means innovative solutions must be brought to the table. Our future is at stake."

Cassandra Hernandez, District 3:
"I support the continuation of the program as modified, as it reduced the frequency of collection and reduced costs to be reallocated for staffing. The city needs to ramp up additional efforts to improve education on recycling right, as educational programs and enforcement help reduce contamination rates. My hope is that the community sees value in recycling and reducing waste enough to be emphasized at home and at school, so that we can have generations of families who recycle, reducing our overall waste to landfills."

Cissy Lizarraga, District 8:
“I am always willing to look at ways to find new efficiencies in City programs, but it’s also important to remember that the curbside recycling program doesn’t exist to make money, but to provide an important environmental service. It’s a service that El Pasoans value highly, as evidenced by the incredible demand to restart the program when it was temporarily suspended due to the pandemic. I hope that we can successfully decrease the contamination rate through educational programs and messaging so that this important program can continue to succeed.”

Article Topic Follows: ABC-7 Xtra

Erik Elken

Erik Elken co-anchors ABC-7’s flagship newscasts.

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