Trash or Treasure? Adapting to recycling’s new normal

On a hot summer morning at the Friedman Recycling plant in Albuquerque’s North Valley, the city’s pungent recycling mix streams past on a series of conveyor belts, with an array of discards like cardboard, water bottles and soda cans first sorted by thrumming machines and human hands into bins, then compressed into giant bales bound for markets across the country. Workers pick through dense paper bales in search of errant plastic bags, aiming to reduce contamination to three percent, a drop from rates of eight percent accepted just two years ago. Grimy plastic bags, pizza boxes, garden hoses, and even more plastic bags—unrecyclable waste mixed in by residents, adding up to nearly a third of the city’s recycling stream—is sorted into a massive pile destined for the landfill. 

Despite processing costs that have increased over the last three years by about 150 percent to nearly $1 million, Albuquerque’s Director of Solid Waste Management Matthew Whelan says the city is committed to working through recent challenges to their recycling program.  

A 2018 Chinese government ban on plastic waste imports led to a worldwide recycling crisis. Recycling programs across the U.S. have struggled to respond to an oversupply of materials, stricter contamination standards and higher processing costs as the glut of recyclables crashed commodity prices and led buyers worldwide to become far more choosy about quality. 

“This isn’t a bump in the road. We’re not going to be able to go back to business as usual like it was three or four years ago,” emphasizes Patrick Peck, Director of South Central Solid Waste Authority in Las Cruces.

It’s not the Green New Deal: It’s the Red Deal… and it’s in NM

Activist Cheyenne Antonio lists the toxic legacies left by resource extraction and industry on Navajo lands: Superfund sites, coal mines, uranium contamination. But fracking, she says, “is a beast times ten that we cannot contain.”

With over 40,000 oil and gas wells spread throughout the San Juan Basin, many Navajo communities are on the frontlines of New Mexico’s oil and gas boom. Antonio, 25, has seen the impacts in her home Torreon, a small Navajo community surrounded by oil and gas development in northwest New Mexico. “Our aquifer right now is under threat from oil and gas industries,” she says. And she’s concerned about a rise in cancer diagnoses in her family.