El Paso recycling program plagued by misuse, distrust and confusion
El Paso’s taxpayers, city officials and government watchdogs agree — the city’s recycling program is far from perfect.
Contaminated materials, mixed messaging on how to recycle, and rogue collection crews that “cut corners” have cost $1.1 million since 2016.
The city has invested at least $68 million in the program since 2006, when it entered into a contract with Friedman Recycling, a private company based in Phoenix, Arizona that processes the waste. The program’s goals are waste reduction and preservation of the environment
But the reality is much more grim.
A 2018 internal audit of the city’s Environmental Services Department found the city only saved eight months’ worth of landfill space and didn’t come near the goal of keeping material improperly placed for recycling down to 15% of what was collected.
“The recycling program has not been successful since its inception 11 years ago,” the audit said.
El Paso’s contamination rate, meaning dirty or non-recyclable items, rose to 32% in 2020, up from 26% rate in 2018.
“We’re one of the highest contamination rates in Texas,” said Lily Adriano, an outreach specialist with the city’s recycling program.
An October 2020 audit found that 14.7 tons of recycled items sent to Friedman Recycling were trash, which accounted for a third of all the material taken for recycling). That was followed by mixed paper, which accounted for 14.5 tons.
Contamination can damage equipment or harm workers sorting the materials, the company said. In 2015, the city renegotiated the contract with Friedman Recycling to address the costs associated with contamination, issuing partial refunds to the company for contaminated waste.
The city has paid $1.1 million to Friedman Recycling for contamination disposal, according to an city spokeswoman.
This year costs $225,000 alone, Astrid Bunner, a program manager with the Environmental Services Department said.
“If people are putting a you know, a McDonald foam cup into recycling and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a foam cup. They’ll take care of it,’ but there’s a high cost to take care of it for you,” she said.
Breaching public trust
Losses aren’t just measured in dollars, but also public faith in the program.
The city temporarily stopped the recycling program from November until January, citing pandemic concerns, including a shortage of drivers..
Residents in the Sunset Heights do say their trust in the program eroded after some residents saw their recycling thrown in trash trucks earlier this month.
Leah Wood, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years, said sanitation workers dumped blue bins in with the regular trash several times over the last year. She filed reports with 311 and the Environmental Services Department, but said she received the same response each time.
“They’d say the same thing: ‘We have a new guy on the route. And they were confused,’” she said. “How do you get confused? Gray is trash, blue is recycling, they hammer that into us as residents, we’re supposed to know which one goes in which.”
She said she watched it happen again on May 11, and wrote to city Rep. Cissy Lizarraga. The City Council member’s chief of staff, Chris Canales, told Wood in an email it was likely “a localized issue either with only your bins, or along your route,” according to documents she shared with El Paso Matters.
When other neighborhood residents took to Nextdoor, a social media app, to complain about the same thing, Wood forwarded the thread to Canales.
Canales told Wood the next morning the trash crew would go through disciplinary measures.
“ESD investigated quickly and found that the manual collection crew on the route servicing Sunset Heights did indeed mix trash and recycling, not just for you but for multiple customers along their route,” Canales wrote in the email. “It seems that the recycling crew had a problem and fell behind on their route, and the trash crew took it upon themselves to pick up the slack, so to speak, and collect both in the trash truck.”
Patricia Medici, who’s lived in Sunset Heights for years, wrote to Lizarraga’s office a year ago about the same issue She said she documented three weeks of trash and recycling collections, and sent an email to Lizarraga’s office on June 30, 2020.
When Medici followed up in July, Canelas told her it was a training issue with a new driver.
Canales did not return requests for comment from El Paso Matters.
El Paso ESD officials said the dumping occurred at 10 properties over 12 weeks in Sunset Heights.
Nicholas Ybarra, the engineering division manager for the department, said in an email that employees “cut corners because of the difficulty maneuvering the rear load truck through the alleyways.”
“This appears to have been an isolated incident, which has been addressed with the personnel involved, and we do not foresee this happening again,” Ybarra said.
The local representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees disputed the city’s claim that drivers acted without management’s knowledge.
David Guzman, an El Paso field representative for AFSCME, said he would represent any employees that would challenge disciplinary actions.
“The whole issue here is that citizens saw what they did and it went directly to the city (representatives) and the reps started questioning the whole thing,” Guzman said. “I can tell you the employees would not pick up that and put it in the trash if they were not told to.”
Environmental services officials said in an email they “respectfully disagree” with Guzman, but provided no additional comment.
Wood said she wants more accountability from the city on how the recycling program is doing, and for the city to address the concerns about contamination.
“I don’t think the city can be trusted at this point,” she said. “I think they’re going to give us whatever the most politically correct answer is. I really have absolutely no trust, no faith in what they’re saying.”
Wood agreed contamination was a major issue, but said that falls on the city’s guidelines for recycling.
“There’s contradictions left and right,” she said. “And they aren’t very transparent when they do make changes.”
El Paso Matters requested an interview with El Paso Environmental Services Director Ellen Smyth, who declined an interview and deferred comment to Astrid Bunner, a project manager at ESD.
Bunner started streamlining the recycling guidelines six months ago but said a lot of work remains.
“In taking over this program, my goal is to simplify the message to our community,” she said. “Because I do hear them loud and clear when they say ‘you keep changing it,’ or ‘the messaging is not consistent.’”
Bunner oversees the outreach, customer service and business departments. She said about 70% of outreach’s time is spent answering questions about the recycling program.
Bunner developed virtual recycling classes to replace the in-person required classes to opt-in to the recycling program, which was another city measure to curb contamination. While city spending on education has increased, so has the contamination rate.
“One of the biggest issues that we have is there’s a lot of ‘wish-cycling,’” she said, “where a lot of people put stuff into the blue bin that they wish was recyclable.”
The city’s website has five different resources to help with recycling: an up-to-date list in English; an outdated PDF guide in Spanish and English; the Recycling Wizard database; the Recycle Right quiz; and the Frequently Asked Questions section.
El Paso Matters found a dozen discrepancies between the information on the city’s resource pages, and incorrect information on the recyclability of materials.
Bunner said she would work to fix all the discrepancies in the materials, but said it’s a time-consuming process.
“There are 70,000 items alone in the Recycle Wizard,” she said. “But it’s important for me to let us know if you see something wrong.”
She said her hope is to preserve the program.
“I really am interested in maintaining it and that it doesn’t go away because some people don’t know how to recycle,” Bunner said.
Cover photo: Bins for recycling and trash in an El Paso Central neighborhood. The city of El Paso apologized to residents of Sunset Heights after residents complained trash crews were dumping residential recycling. (Dani Prokop/El Paso Matters)