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Santa Fe, New Mexico reopens idled MRF under new recycling contract

Dive Brief:

  • Recyclables are once again being sorted at a publicly-owned MRF in New Mexico’s capital under a new operating contract between the Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency (SFSWMA) and Town Recycling. Following approval in May, the company began testing over the summer and has processed an estimated 3,200 tons to date.
  • The MRF was idled in 2015 after SFSWMA began a contract that involved shipping recyclables 65 miles away to Friedman Recycling. “It was pretty expensive for us because of the costs involved in transporting materials to Albuquerque,” Shirlene Sitton, director of Santa Fe’s Environmental Services Division, told Waste Dive. “We were excited that Town bid on using our MRF.”
  • Municipal partners say another positive aspect of the new contract is that Town Recycling has some local markets for material that the region previously had not tapped into. “One goal in bringing it back locally is to try to have more control and reduce our carbon footprint. Friedman was shipping a lot of stuff to China and they struggled with all of the recent changes,” Sitton said. 

Dive Insight:

SFSWMA’s Buckman Road Recycling and Transfer Station sat unused for years; without the ability to outsource operations, it likely would have stayed that way. But Town Recycling has reportedly hired 11 local workers for the contract.

“The agency wasn’t interested in trying to reopen the MRF and run it itself. It was interested in a contractor who has more ability to move and market materials and staff the facility itself,” Sitton said.

Officials previously believed the Friedman contract would save Santa Fe $200,000 a year, but a number of changes occurred that made the opportunity less economically viable. Friedman itself has faced challenges in several New Mexico and Texas communities over recent years, many of which are related to weighing changes in pricing and collection to balance an overabundance of material amid depressed market activity. Like many other MRF operators, contamination costs have also been a factor.

New Mexico relies heavily on the hub-and-spoke recycling model, in which a more populous city acts as the hub and less populated cities are the spokes that feed it. But as transportation costs have increased and commodity prices have dipped, sending materials to a hub has, in Santa Fe’s case, become more expensive than trying to keep it local.  Now, Santa Fe holds the potential to become a hub itself. 

“The bottom line is [the new contract] is more affordable to Santa Fe and its residents because transportation costs are a lot lower. When you’ve got your own balers and conveyors belts, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to haul loose material elsewhere,” Sarah Pierpont, executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition, told Waste Dive. “We’re cautiously optimistic Santa Fe could become a hub … possibly becoming a resource for other cities in New Mexico.”

When the MRF ramped back up, both Santa Fe and Town Recycling worked to understand how changes in the local recycling stream would affect operations. The city had expanded its list of accepted curbside materials when starting the Friedman contract, making for a different mix than the facility had previously handled. Santa Fe also stopped accepting glass curbside more than two years ago and implemented a drop-off program instead. The city has also implemented a plastic bag ban, which could eliminate or greatly reduce equipment tangling concerns.

“I’m curious if this MRF will have a problem with tanglers as much as others do,” Pierpont said, adding that a similar bag ban will take effect in Albuquerque starting in January. 

During testing, Town Recycling found that plastic bags were not a major issue and Santa Fe’s recycling stream has lower contamination levels than anticipated. However, there is also more overall tonnage than first thought. As a result, Town Recycling will sort cardboard, paper, metals and plastics #1 and #2, but they will use another vendor for sorting mixed containers, Sitton said.

One new item of concern that has come up is batteries, a growing issue for service providers around the United States. 

“That had never been mentioned to us before. But getting that kind of feedback is essential for our recycling campaign and getting the cleanest stream possible,” said Sitton, explaining that local-level recycling stream insights previously were difficult to obtain because Santa Fe’s recyclables were combined with those of other communities in Albuquerque. “Now we’re getting really true feedback on what our contamination rate is and specific materials that our residents need to focus on.”

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