HARLINGEN — For years, residents like Kate McSwain have counted on the city’s recycling center to help cut down on the tons of garbage buried in the region’s landfill.

In schools, the center has helped teachers design programs to teach students about recycling plastics to help the environment.

But in March, city officials closed the center amid concerns the coronavirus could contaminate materials, posing a safety threat to employees.

On Monday, McSwain and others expressed concern officials are considering “permanently closing our only recycling center.”

“All across my Facebook (page) today, many, many people are upset and concerned about this — especially during the pandemic when very few of us can venture out to voice our objection in public,” McSwain stated.

Today, city commissioners are holding a noon workshop to discuss the recycling center’s operations.

“We decided to have a workshop and get public input,” Mayor Chris Boswell said Monday. “I know there’s a lot of public interest so we want to share information.”

At the recycling center, workers sort materials by hand, city spokeswoman Irma Garza said.

“There’s still concern of safety of employees,” City Manager Dan Serna said. “Some products — we don’t know where it comes from. There’s concern of safety regarding the products.”

High operational costs

At City Hall, recycling also comes down to the bottom line — money.

“We’re going to talk about recycling in general and the economics of recycling in Harlingen and provide options — whether to open it up,” Serna said, referring to the recycling center.

Every year, the city spends $430,000 to operate the recycling center, he said.

In turn, he said, the center generates $35,000 a year through the sale of recycled materials.

“Right now, the market conditions are not very favorable,” Serna said.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has deeply cut into the city’s budget, has rattled the recycling industry.

“We’re going to talk about the complications of COVID and the impact on the recycling center,” Boswell said. “We’re going to talk about the recycling program and changes in the industry that in some ways may be hurting the recycling effort.”

Funding Keep Harlingen Beautiful

In Harlingen, the recycling center helps fund Keep Harlingen Beautiful, Executive Director Melissa Boykin said.

“For Keep Harlingen Beautiful, one of the things we teach is the importance of recycling,” she said. “Recycling is important — not just for us and the community but as far as environmental impact.”

Through the year, she said, the recycling center generates revenue that helps fund events such as the group’s Litter Bash and Arbor Day tree planting.

At the city’s schools, the recycling center teaches students in 32 campuses about helping the environment, she said.

“The programs are growing,” she said.

McSwain expressed concern the center’s closure could wipe out a key environmental component in students’ educations.

“If the recycling center was to close, children who have … recycling in (their) curriculum wouldn’t even have a place to practice it,” she stated.

More recycling

Before officials shut it down, traffic counts found 100 to 120 cars a day entered the recycling center, Boykin said.

“People are learning about recycling and there are more people doing it,” she said. “I know the city has been getting a lot of phone calls about the reopening of the center. People are holding materials until the recycling center opens. We’ve gotten a lot of phone calls on that.”