The average person in the United States produces more than four pounds of waste every day, and as a whole the U.S. produces around 258 million tons every year, more than 50 percent (169 million tons) of which ends up in landfills.

Since the early 1990’s, municipalities around the country have picked up the civic responsibility of modifying the way they dispose of certain materials to not disturb the environment while making extra money. The endeavor is much easier said than done as many recycling programs in the Rio Grande Valley have come to know.

Most cities in the region provide an avenue of recycling services to their residents, and those who don’t usually have neighbors who are willing to take in the recyclable materials. However, as all municipalities will explain: not all recycling programs are made equal.

 

VOLUNTARY VS. MANDATED

 

When they were first implemented, surrounding cities looked at McAllen resident’s brand-new blue recycling bins in envy. Those living in McAllen could now separate all of their recyclables at home without having to go out of their way to visit the recycling center during operation hours.

Robert Treviño is the Renewable Resources Manager for the recycling center and processing facility at the City of McAllen. The only one of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. Every day the facility receives between 30 to 40 tons of recyclable materials.

Other cities--such as Pharr, Edinburg and San Juan--offer curbside recycling to businesses, schools and residents that pay an extra fee for the service, plus drop-off centers where the public can dispose of their recyclable waste. Cities like Mission and Weslaco offer drop-off centers only.

“Even though our program is much smaller in scale, we’ve had a success rate of 95 percent clean material in our recycling center,” said Ramiro Gomez, director of Solid Waste Management for the City of Edinburg. “We’ve only had one or two loads in the past couple of years get rejected because of contamination.”

When it comes to recycling, bigger is not necessarily better. McAllen has seen a spike in contaminated loads since they implemented city-wide curbside recycling.

Residents not familiar with the recycling program can mistake their blue bin as an extra trash bin and dispose food scraps along with other non-recyclable waste in the inappropriate bin. If organic materials enter the recycling truck, the entire load is immediately considered contaminated, no longer suitable for processing and heads to the landfill.

In November, the City of McAllen started its “Recycle Right” campaign to help inform citizens on how to properly use their blue bins.

They also hired staff to help inspect the bins before they are picked up, and citations have been given to residents who misuse their bins. First-time violators will be given a notice detailing how their bin was contaminated and instructions on how to fix the issue. A second violation will result in the removal of their blue bin and a black bin replacement, at the cost of $10.50 a month to the resident.

“If you’re using the recycle bin as a trash can, we’re going to give you another trash can, and you’re going to have to pay the fee for it,” Treviño said.

The campaign has already resulted in a 15 percent increase in clean recyclable materials, which Treviño said is attributable to a more educated public.

 

EDUCATION NOT CONTAMINATION

Whether “Curby” the recycling bin in McAllen, or “Roxie” the Recyclesaurus Rex in Edinburg, there seems to be a popular marketing technique among recycling programs catering specifically to children.

In Pharr--which provides curbside recycling to schools and businesses only--their main focus is educating young kids about their drop off facilities. A similar program is in place in Edinburg as well.

“I guess that’s what makes us (Pharr and McAllen) different,” Environmental Coordinator with the City of Pharr Crystal Medina said. “Pharr has the education factor in play now, so we’re waiting to see when we can get curbside going full force and not see that contamination issue, such as McAllen.”

Medina thinks it will take a few years for people to learn the benefits about recycling but seeing the same faces while presenting to students is promising. The students often like to brag about how they got their parents to recycle.

Gomez echoed that sentiment, adding that the youth in his city are usually the ones demanding Edinburg keeps adding to their recycling program. With the largest university in the region, Gomez has many progressive eyes on the recycling infrastructure.

“Many of those kids we used to present to in the elementary schools are in high school and college now, and they’re the ones that are now requesting additional programs,” he said. “Those are the people who are really driving the requests for these types of services.”

In Edinburg, when a resident requests a recycling bin for their home, they are charged $5 and given a presentation where they are taught how to use their recycling bins. All of this is done to avoid contaminated loads, which puts a wrench on the duties of recycling facilities.

 

THE SEARCH FOR MARKETS

Recycling is not the fastest way to get rich these days. In fact, recycling programs often come at a hefty cost municipalities and barely sustain themselves by selling their recycled materials, which can be a huge task in itself.

“We (recycling programs in the Valley) are always phased with the same problem: the market,” Gomez said.

Cities like Edinburg and Pharr have facilities that can process some of their recycled materials and compact them into purchasable blocks. Most of their vendors are domestic, who usually ship the materials to Mexico, or sometimes they sell the materials directly to the buyers across the border.

Pharr has found buyers for their cardboard and plastics, and now only send their glass to McAllen. But even then, for a full purchasable load of cardboard that may take them days to complete, they’ll only receive about $30 for it.

“That’s just how the recycling world is,” Medina said.

But whatever Pharr and Edinburg cannot process or sell gets sent to McAllen’s processing facility. Cities like Mission and San Juan that have drop-off bins but no processing facilities or staff at all, send all of their materials directly to McAllen.

Since it’s the only city with its own complete processing facility, McAllen ends up housing most of the Upper Valley’s recycled materials. That gives them a unique advantage when trying to find buyers for their materials.

“The problem with the market is they want a certain amount of volume,” Treviño said. “If I only have two units of cardboard, I’m going to have the hardest time getting rid of it because nobody is going to want to make the trip for it. So here (McAllen’s facility), everything is sold in full loads.”

 

‘STEWARDSHIP OF THE ENVIRONMENT’

So, when it comes to recycling, an educated public as a solid foundation is the certainly a good first step. Then comes the hard part: finding someone to buy recycled materials.

No matter how much revenue cities make from recycled materials, their respective directors share similar answers when asked about why recycling is available.

Medina, the environmental coordinator at the City of Pharr said her job is to make sure “when the children in (Pharr) grow up they live in a healthy community.”

Gomez said “it’s more of a personally stewardship of the environment,” for the city of Edinburg.

“We want to find ways for the city to lower its carbon footprint,” he said. “It was never intended to be a huge money-maker.”

As far as residents of any city should be concerned, options to recycle are available. Some may have to travel farther than others, but the facilities are there and they all want recycled waste.