City to decide recycling center’s future; Safer, more cost-effective plan eyed

Workers throw cardboard into a compactor, which bundles recyclables into tight packages for handling at the Harlingen Recycling Center in this file photo. 

HARLINGEN — After weeks of debate, city commissioners might be set to decide the fate of the Harlingen Recycling Center.

Today, commissioners are expected to approve an “action plan” marking the course of the city’s recycling program.

Meanwhile, a group of residents plans a “park and protest” demonstration outside City Hall to call on officials to reopen the recycling center.

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

“There is a concern with respect to the health and safety of staff with the handling of product,” City Manager Dan Serna said Tuesday.

Today, Serna is expected to recommend commissioners approve a program in which residents would drop off materials in bins located at the recycling center and the old landfill before the city transports them to an outside recycling plant.

“We’re looking at a no-touch recycling program in which citizens come in and drop it off in containers that are transported to a facility,” Serna said.

As part of the program, the city would budget $90,000 to fund operations.

Commissioners will also consider 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.

High operational costs

Last month, officials told residents the recycling center continued to lose money.

About two years ago, much of the recycling industry collapsed after China stopped importing materials, leading to plummeting costs on the commodities market, officials told residents.

Before it stopped its importation, China was burning unclean materials or dumping it in the ocean, Mayor Chris Boswell said.

In the last few years, the recycling center’s annual operational costs have climbed from about $323,000 to $430,000 while revenue derived from the sale of recycled products has plunged from about $111,000 to $25,000.

Across town, too few residents take part in the recycling program, officials said.

This year, the recycling center was generating 1.3 percent of the total amount of city waste transferred to Edinburg’s regional landfill.

Residents call for reopening of recycling center

From the podium, residents have called on commissioners to continue funding the recycling center to help the environment.

At schools, they said, the city’s program helps students learn the importance of recycling for the planet’s future.

Meanwhile, residents have criticized the city’s transfer of money from its sanitation fund to its general fund.

The city is transferring about $481,000 along with a $519,000 franchise fee to the general fund, Serna said.

“The general fund buys good things but ultimately the sanitation fund is for sanitation purposes like trash pick-up, brush pick-up and recycling,” resident Christy Tovar stated in a press release.

“The current recycling center budget would be more than covered by the amount of next year’s proposed transfer so there’s really no way the commissioners can cite financial reasons for closing it. Using the sanitation fund to cover general fund items is an abuse of public money that comes mostly from ratepayers.”

Resident Tania Vega argued, “There is no reason for the fund to be used for anything other than what it is intended for, which is sanitation.”

Residents have complained commissioners are considering closing the recycling center amid the COVID-19 pandemic, during which officials have restricted meeting attendance to limit the virus’ exposure.

Across town, the proposal to close the recycling center led residents to send 241 written comments to City Hall.

Meanwhile, a petition supporting the recycling center has drawn nearly 3,000 signatures.