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)

El Paso’s recycling program has a new name and owner.

In December 2021, Phoenix-based company Friedman Recycling, which operated El Paso’s recycling program, sold its Albuquerque and El Paso facilities to a national company, Waste Connections Inc., based in The Woodlands, Texas.

Waste Connections of El Paso will do business as BARCO (which stands for Borderlands and Albuquerque Recycling Company) and will take over collection and processing of recycling within the El Paso city limits. BARCO will continue processing Las Cruces’ recyclables under a different agreement.

El Paso City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to transfer the contract from Friedman to Waste Connections of El Paso. The contract requires Waste Connections to meet all of the obligations that Friedman previously agreed to.

The contract transfer came before City Council in early March but was tabled after council members expressed surprise that Friedman Recycling’s facility was already sold.

Scott Berry, the district manager for Waste Connections, told City Council Tuesday the company will be more involved in recycling education efforts in partnership with the city.

“If we don’t get a good recycle mix then we don’t make anything; then we’re just picking up trash,” Berry said.

El Paso’s recycling program started in 2006, when the city first entered into a contract with Friedman Recycling.

Since its inception, there’s been dual issues with costs and contamination (the placing of non-recyclables into bins). While metal and paper have higher recycling rates, plastics are recycled at about a 30% rate, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

El Paso’s recycling program was suspended from November 2020 until January 2021 due to the pandemic, meaning all recyclables were sent to the landfill.

El Paso’s recycling contract runs through 2030, said Ellen Smyth, the director of the city’s Environmental Services Department.

The contract remains the same except in one key area — ending the contract. Previously, if the city wanted to terminate the contract with Friedman Recycling, the city would be required to buy the entire facility, the land, the warehouse and equipment, Smyth said.

Now, the city will instead pay a lump sum of $160,000 to Waste Connections to end the contract.

The contract could be rebid, allowing for other companies to compete for recycling services, but that process takes time.

“It’s about two years to put together a bid packet of this magnitude,” Smyth told El Paso Matters.

A 2018 audit of El Paso’s recycling program showed that while the city invested more than $68 million, the program only saved eight months of landfill space over a decade of use.

“The recycling program has not been successful since its inception 11 years ago,” the audit said.

Taxpayers paid more than $1.1 million to Friedman Recycling to pay for cleanup and damage caused by contamination, but Smyth said that figure is a combination of contamination, landfill rebates and tipping fees.

Smyth told El Paso Matters that the city will continue to pay contamination fees, now to Waste Connections, since the contract provisions made for Friedman will carry over.

The national contamination rate varies from an average 17% to 25%, according to estimates from nonprofit advocacy group The Recycling Partnership and the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively.

El Paso’s contamination rate is higher than the national rate, with about 30% of all items being non-recyclables. That’s down from the 2021 high of 34%, Smyth said. She credits the decrease to a course in the Black Belt Recycling Challenge, a program the city rolled out in June 2021 after reports of dumping recyclables and confusion around guidelines surfaced in May.

Smyth said 790 people have started the recycling challenge and 162 people in two classes graduated with their “black belts.”

Waste Connections may accept additional items Friedman Recycling previously did not, such as shredded paper and empty pizza boxes, Berry told the council in early March.

Smyth said the city would be in discussion with Waste Connections over the next few weeks about possible changes and updates to the recycling program.

Cover photo: Bins for recycling and trash in an El Paso Central neighborhood. (Dani Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New...