RGV recycling: Choices and preferences

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Ruben Olivarez (left) and Oscar Cantu flatten the truck load of cardboard boxes they then placed in the bins at Harlingen’s new self -drop-off recycling area.

HARLINGEN — Rio Grande Valley residents have their own preferences regardless of the options provided close to them.

The Valley’s three major cities — McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville — have immediate options for dining, shopping and recycling.

When it comes to recycling, both Harlingen and Brownsville residents agreed McAllen is their personal choice for dropping off recyclables and they wish their respective cities had the same type of facilities.

What makes McAllen different from Harlingen and Brownsville is their curbside option. For years, residents have been paying $2 extra in their utilities bill to have recyclable bins outside their homes. That way, pickup trucks take those recyclables directly to their recycling center located at 4101 N Bentsen Road.

This does not mean Harlingen and Brownsville do not have options. Drop-off sites are available for residents of Cameron County yet they believe more could be done to promote recycling in the Valley.

In March, officials temporarily closed the center in Harlingen amid concern the coronavirus could contaminate products, posing safety risks for employees who manually sort the material.

Back in July, city commissioners were also considering options including charging households $1.50 a month to help fund recycling operations and hiring a private recycling company — a move which would spur a monthly household surcharge of about $16.

However, the outlook of a monthly charge occurring is slim. Harlingen Assistant City Manager Carlos Sanchez said at this time city officials are not looking into creating additional charges.

“ We are not exploring that option. That is a curbside recycling program, meaning every resident has a blue bin at their home and the city would need to purchase trash trucks and a separate one. You are talking about a multimillion-dollar operation. We don’t have plans to do that at this point and don’t have the resources to be able to support an operation like that,” Sanchez said.

“ We want to minimize the exposure and the interaction between the material and the employees or even volunteers,” he said.

Currently two different drop-off sites have been created for residents to take their recyclables. One at the Harlingen Recycling Center at 1006 South Commerce and the Scale House located at 3900 East Harrison. Recyclables allowed are cardboard, paper, aluminum, and plastic one and two.

Though there are no employees working at the sites during this time, Sanchez said the city is open to allowing volunteers to contribute and help manage the sites.

“ It is a fairly new operation right now. We are evaluating how successful we are with the containers and we are hoping the public is going to comply with sorting up materials individually, meaning they put the right material on the right bin,” he said.

“ If we see we are having issues with that, we might need to look at alternatives or city staff to command the containers,” Sanchez said.

Currently Harlingen has partnered with McAllen to have the recyclables from its sites taken to their recycling center. Sanchez added city officials are glad the city agreed to partner up and help.

“ We are formalizing all the agreements necessary so the material they receive is clean and package it and sell the commodities,” he said.

Concerns from Harlingen residents

Because of the closing of the center, a concerned group of residents created an environmental group to raise consciousness on recycling. Reinvent Harlingen Recycling was started on Facebook when the decision to close the center arose. Members of the group protested across from City Hall in July to ask that the center be reopened. Now, they are advocating for better options besides the recycling bins and brainstorming ideas to create a better recycling community in Harlingen.

Tania Vega, 38, started with the group when it was first created. Vega said the group has been sending emails to city officials since June and continues to express their concerns. Vega is a Harlingen resident who has been recycling for three years now.

“ When I saw the amount of plastic and cardboard, things I was throwing away, it dawned on me I could be recycling this stuff,” Vega said.

When the center closed, Vega’s recyclables began to pile up and she started commuting to Edinburg to drop off her bags.

“ It is a drive-through. Really nice, it has a canopy and windows where you can throw in your plastic, your paper, tin. They have attendants in the back and there is no contact, they are just taking things from the back. I thought it was really neat the way they had everything set up,” she said.

However, because it is over an hour for her to commute she prefers to have her options in Harlingen.

“ I tried other options. There was a Red Fish bin in Harlingen but then that one got locked up. Then I found out about one in La Feria behind the police station. When the one in Harlingen was open I would go every week,” Vega said.

For Vega, the new drop-off bins could be better.

“ I am not a very tall person and when I went to drop off my plastic it was pretty full. I had to tiptoe so it wouldn’t fall down. I went around to throw cardboard and a couple was in front of me breaking down boxes. People are not aware they have to do that,” she said.

Now another bin has been moved and Vega believes that where it has been placed has made traffic difficult.

“ People walking could be hit and we don’t want anyone to get hurt or have damage to their vehicle,” she said.

Another concern for her is there is not an available bin for paper. Yet, she wants to continue using the sites in Harlingen so she does not have to travel too far.

“ We want everyone to help make it a smoother transition and for them not to have any reason to not continue the recycling program. We don’t want any negativity but minor improvements,” she said.

Attendants on site is also an idea she and other members have agreed on. The group is willing to volunteer and help out at the site, too.

Currently, members are looking into helping elders or disabled people by picking up their recyclables and dropping them off for them.

“ We had some people who didn’t want to get out of their house or had trouble getting out of their vehicles and we came up with an idea of no contact pickup. They leave their items in their front yard and we pick them up for them,” Vega said.

Another member of the group, Patricia, who preferred to only use her first name, agreed Harlingen needs better options and said for her McAllen is a better option.

“ It would be nice if they could help us by serving the community and help us have a recycling community. I moved from Austin because of the pandemic and one of the things I miss the most is there were recycling bins outside my house,” Patricia said.

“ Of course you pay for it in your bill but that is the whole purpose and then it increases jobs. We don’t have a recycling program for the houses like McAllen does for their residents. When I looked up for the recycling center here it was closing. I want to use what I have here, it defeats the purpose of using our carbon imprint,” she said.

Patricia also remembers buying compost from the McAllen Recycling Center, which is an option she enjoyed having.

Brownsville options and residents’ opinions

When it comes to Brownsville, the city has its options as well as family owned recycling companies.

According to City Manager Noel Bernal, the city’s recycling services are offered by the city’s third-party solid waste providers. The two sites are the Downtown Recycling Center located at 308 E. Elizabeth St. No staff is on-site and it is operated by GMS Waste Disposal. Recyclables include plastic one and two, books, paper, cardboard and any kind of aluminum cans.

The second site is the Alton Gloor and Southmost site. On Wednesdays, recycling is offered at the Fire Station on Alton Gloor next to Valley Regional Medical Center from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The items collected are newspapers, plastic, aluminum, cardboard and tin.

“ The city is currently evaluating its residential solid waste franchise agreement, including options for curbside recycling,” Bernal said.

Besides having city operated centers, there are several family owned recycling companies in Brownsville. One of them is RDA Technologies located at 468 Regal Row #124. David Avila, owner of RDA, said the company takes care of most recycling centers in the Valley. The company focuses on recycling electronics.

Avila said he tries to repurpose the items taken to RDA in order to reuse instead of simply throwing them away.

“ It is not just destroying, that is not recycling. It is trying to give it a second life. If we can’t repurpose equipment then we can start the destruction of it,” Avila said.

The company also does electronic repairs. Anything with a powerhouse can be taken for recycling to RDA. Cities the company has partnered with are Harlingen, Pharr, McAllen and San Juan, to name a few.

He said conferences and seminars have been provided by the company to educate on leadership and recycling.

“ Our theme is repurposing, that way things don’t go straight to the landfill,” he said.

Avila believes one of the main problems to creating a sustainable recycling program in the RGV is that recycling centers are closing, hence the Harlingen Recycling Center.

“ We are losing recycling facilities. It is ridiculous, Harlingen closed and Brownsville doesn’t have a recycling facility. I am talking about the full size facility,” Avila said.

He stressed no one in Cameron County processes electronics for recycling. His business started in July 2014 from his own home. He also believes the City of McAllen has a much better recycling program in the Valley and should be an example to follow.

“ It is something to look after. They have a great system going on, nobody in the Valley can compare to them. No questions asked,” he said.

“ Harlingen had a good system going on and we would service them for six years. Brownsville does not have a recycling facility. When you talk about McAllen you are talking about the cream of the crop” Avila said.

In order to get to the level of McAllen, Avila suggested more programs about recycling should be promoted and advocated in Cameron County.

“ Rose Timmer was trying to get a nice program in Brownsville. We need leadership and local government to get involved,” he said.

Timmer is the Executive Director of Healthy Communities of Brownsville, a nonprofit organization that brings environmental education to partners in the Valley. Timmer agreed more can be done in Brownsville to improve recycling consciousness.

“ It is very hard for those who want to recycle. We have no set direction from the city other than the recycling center in Elizabeth Street,” Timmer said.

“ It is very limited into what it takes. Very scattered. We work with David from RDA and are fortunate we have him here,” she said.

Just as Avila mentioned, Timmer added Harlingen had a good program going on and stressed McAllen has a preferable option.

“ They take a variety, they take glass and crush it in a machine they bought, they take all kinds of paper and shredded paper,” Timmer said.

Just as others mentioned, Timmer said curbside recycling in McAllen is a great option to consider for the rest of the Valley.

“ You have to have the higher ups to want to make an environmental south state no matter what the cost. The cost of recycling, to do it is very expensive but I think cities need to be on top of it and do it for the environment. Not do it for the money. That is easy for me to say but McAllen put it in their budget and it is mandatory,” she said.

However, when it comes to supporting the environment, Brownsville has more options.

Daniella Lopez Valdez is Marketing Director for Blue Turtle Project, an organization focusing on removing plastic from the ocean and educating on world dangers caused by it. The project has bracelets available for sale which support removing 2.2 pounds of ocean plastic.

Lopez Valdez said it is very difficult to recycle in Brownsville and agreed a curbside option should be available.

“ It is ideal because we need to make it easy for people to recycle and currently it isn’t,” she said.

“ Not everybody knows they can go downtown. It is definitely not easy and we need to make it so you can easily separate at your house. Once you are able to implement it from home you should be able to take it out,” Lopez Valdez said.

The leader behind the McAllen Recycling Center

Elvira Alonzo, Public Works Director for the City of McAllen, has been in charge since 2016. She has worked with the city for over 36 years, starting out in the human resources department. Alonzo has a certification on environmental studies which allowed her to be in the position she is in today. When the city decided to advertise for a recycling coordinator position, she said she felt she had the qualifications for it.

“ That is how I got involved with recycling. After I created the education recycling program in 1999, the city approved the building we have now,” Alonzo said.

The recycling center program in McAllen has been active since 1994. According to Alonzo, the city started back then and encompassed the entire city in 1997.

“ We used an old transfer station to work as a recycling center. We used an old airport luggage conveyor belt to help us sort all the recyclables. We started very primitively before I joined in ‘98,” Alonzo said.

By 2000, every resident in McAllen started to receive a black bin and a blue bin for recycling. At the time the fee was $1.25 and now it is $2.

Alonzo was going to school for her bachelor’s degree in business at the same time she managed the recycling center. She looked over operations, employees and more.

“ It was a big undertaking. I became the public works director in 2006 and then created a new position, deputy director, and it gave me the opportunity,” Alonzo said.

Now, Alonzo affirms the recycling center accepts recyclables from any resident in the Valley free of charge, only automatically charging McAllen residents for their curbside option. The only people without this option are residents living in an apartment complex or RV park.

Alonzo mentioned how the center has partnered with other cities, including Harlingen, to take their recyclables to their center. Mission, Sharyland Independent School District, Edinburg and Weslaco are some of them. Altogether, the center employs 28 people, Alonzo said.

Those who want to take their recyclables have the option to take confidential documents for shredding along with their commodities. An employee will then direct the person to the proper bin. The center also receives electronics and recycles glass, which is crushed and sold.

“ The other thing we do is we produce compost. We take all the tree branches and brush and have a contract with a company out of Austin and process it and we cook it, for a lack of a better word, and sell mulch and compost,” Alonzo said.

Employees help out to put in the mulch and compost bought inside attendants’ cars. Six trucks are used to pick up the blue recycling bins in McAllen and unload to a floor where materials are sorted by 12 employees.

“ We then make it into bail and we sell it to different vendors, some are local and some are not. That’s the way it works,” she said.

The McAllen center closed for six weeks because of COVID-19, but opened back up as soon as Gov. Greg Abbott allowed it.

Alonzo affirmed proper precautions and CDC guidelines are being used for the safety of employees working every day. They wear disposable garments such as aprons and gloves, which are thrown away.

Now that the center has partnered with Harlingen, Alonzo said the city felt more than happy to help.

“ It is a win-win for everybody,” she said.

ecavazos@valleystar.com

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