Plastic bags, diapers and deceased pets all have at least one thing in common — they’re not supposed to be recycled. When trash, detritus or diapers left in blue bins make their way onto the conveyor belts at the recycling center in Northeast El Paso, workers have to sort it out by hand.

That contributes to the city’s high contamination rate, as just under 30% of all items placed in blue bins belong in landfills instead. Taxpayers are on the hook for that error, as the city had to rebate more than $168,000 last year to recyclers for taking out the trash.

A new recycling company recently took over El Paso’s troubled program and is looking to clean it up.

In January, Waste Connections Inc., a national recycler based outside of Dallas, bought plants in El Paso and Albuquerque, New Mexico, from Phoenix-based Friedman Recycling. The company operates as BARCO (Borderlands and Albuquerque Recycling Company).

Scott Berry, the district manager at BARCO who oversees operations in El Paso and Albuquerque, said the program needed changes in safety and public outreach to rebuild trust.

“Our shared goal is to work more closely with the city, and be a little more transparent and open with the public,” he said.

Safety culture has improved ‘dramatically’

Most of the workers at the plant under Friedman were considered “temps,” and had salaries of $11 an hour, despite having worked at the facility for over a decade. Waste Connections hired nearly half of the 40 workers as full-time employees and raised the minimum salary for all workers to $15 an hour.

Manager Jessica Gonzales has been at the recycling plant since the program started in 2006. She started on the line, sorting trash from recycling and moved up over the years. She said the safety culture improved “dramatically” since Waste Connections took over.

Manager Jessica Gonzales checks on a baler at the El Paso BARCO recycling plant on April 4, 2022. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

“They’re more attentive to our needs, and it’s a domino effect,” Gonzales said. “You keep employees happy and that keeps production going, the quality is better, there’s fewer accidents, injuries and fires.”

Fire hazard is an inevitability of recycling, Gonzales said. Blazes are easily sparked and well-fed by the stacks of materials. Improper recycling of flammable items, such as batteries, can start a fire when they are run over with equipment or put through machinery.

“People throw out propane tanks, bullets, aerosol cans,” Gonzales said. “People don’t realize that all that is flammable material; it will start a fire.”

Berry said BARCO updated fire safety practices at the El Paso plant when it took over ownership and invested half a million dollars into a system to detect and put out fires called Fire Rover.

Scott Berry

“Monitors use infrared technology, and as soon as whoever’s monitoring can see smoke or whatever, they use a jet cannon to put the fire out,” Berry said.

The prior owner, Friedman Recycling, had several safety and fire issues in the plants it oversaw. 

The Arizona Republic reported the company’s main facility in Phoenix had more than 20 reports of fire since 1994, including a blaze in 2021 that caused millions of dollars in damages and injured a firefighter.

At the El Paso plant, there were fires in 2013, 2014 and 2019. In 2019, more than 60 firefighters responded to a blaze fed by bales of cardboard. According to an open records request, Friedman Recycling was not cited by the city’s fire department for fires within the last five years.

Fire inspection records acquired through an open records request showed the plant failed city fire inspections on the first round in both 2021, and 2017, for a lack of signage and required maintenance tags. On reinspection, the plant passed after fixing the issues.

The city dinged Friedman in 2019 for keeping piles larger than 500 square feet and not maintaining 20 feet of space between piles. In 2020, a test of the sprinkler system reported failures where water did not flow.

In 2018, a worker died at the Albuquerque plant after getting a sleeve caught in the conveyor belt. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Friedman $11,500 for three safety violations in that investigation.

Berry said workers in El Paso have already been given new “rip-away” safety vests, meant to come off if caught in machinery.

Waste Connections Inc., the parent company of BARCO, has paid more than $2 million in fines between 2000 and 2020 to various state and federal agencies, according to Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks corporate misconduct.

The 42 violations over that period included labor, environmental and workplace safety violations in 13 states. One of those violations was for El Paso Disposal LP, a commercial recycler and trash service owned by Waste Connections Inc. The National Labor Relations Board fined the company more than $550,000 for the labor violation.

A front end loader pushes materials from household recycling bins onto sorting machinery at the El Paso BARCO recycling plant on April 4, 2022. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

In for a penny, in for a ton

Ellen Smyth, the Environmental Services Director at the city of El Paso, said BARCO agreed to the same contract Friedman Recycling was under, which expires in 2030. The sole change was the conditions for ending the contract. The city will now pay a lump sum of $160,000 to Waste Connections to end the contract, instead of purchasing the land, processing center and equipment.

The contract requires the city to supplement market losses and pay for contamination. It’s a process Smyth called “circular money” where fees paid by the recycler are then rebated by the city.

The city determined the 2022 contamination rate at 29.9% in January. Contamination has dropped from the 34% high in 2021 but remains above the national average estimated between 17% and 25%.

At the current contamination rate, the city rebates landfill costs at $26 per ton. In the 2021 fiscal year, the city rebated $168,142 for contamination disposal fees.

Looking forward, Smyth said the city is continuing with special education programs, like the “Recycling Black Belt Challenge,” which offers classes to reduce recycling contamination.

Berry, BARCO’s district manager, said he hopes to provide additional educational support, such as tours for Black Belt program participants.

“We can give them a tour to show what happens when the rest of the community is not as educated as they are about residual trash,” he said. “If we can target that stuff, I guarantee it will knock that contamination rate down.”

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...