City to close recycling center; Commissioners call for ‘better’ program

Harlingen Recycling Center on Commerce Street. By Elsa Cavazos, Valley Morning Star

HARLINGEN — The city’s recycling center won’t be reopening.

Now, city officials are pushing for what they call a better, more cost-effective recycling program.

On Wednesday, city commissioners voted to close the Harlingen Recycling Center, approving a $90,000 program which will allow residents to drop off materials in bins located at the recycling plant and the landfill, from which the city will transport the containers to McAllen’s recycling center.

To fund part of the new program, commissioners approved $56,000 to purchase eight long, steel bins.

Commissioners also voted to request proposals from private recycling companies.

Meanwhile, officials said they will try to work with Cameron County and area cities to develop a more cost-effective recycling program.

Amid discussions, commissioners rejected options including charging households $1.50 a month to help fund the recycling center’s operations.

“This is the first step to return to recycling in a smart way,” Mayor Chris Boswell said during the meeting, which was live-streamed to limit exposure to the coronavirus.

Outside City Hall, a group of residents called on officials to reopen the recycling center.

“The perception of the public is incorrect,” Boswell said during the meeting. “This gives us the opportunity to do a better job of recycling for the environment.”

In March, officials temporarily closed the recycling center amid concern the coronavirus could contaminate materials, posing safety risks to employees who manually sort them.

High operational costs

During a PowerPoint presentation, Assistant City Manager Carlos Sanchez told commissioners the recycling center’s operational costs were too high.

“The operating costs are high, revenues are low — it’s not a cost-effective business model,” Sanchez said.

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

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

As a result, in the past few years the recycling center’s annual operational costs climbed from about $323,000 to $430,000 while revenue derived from the sale of recycled products plunged from about $111,000 to $25,000.

Meanwhile, too few residents were taking part in the recycling program, Sanchez said.

“The participation rates are low,” he said.

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

Regional recycling program

During discussions, Commissioner Richard Uribe proposed working with Cameron County to expand the recycling program to make it more cost-effective.

“We need to get more of the other cities close to us involved,” Commissioner Victor Leal said.

Commissioner Frank Puente said officials were developing a “better process.”

“Just because we’re closing the recycling center doesn’t mean we’re closing the process,” he said.

Boswell proposed a regional program.

“We’ve got to move forward with this and see what other kinds of partnerships we can develop — not just McAllen,” he said. “We need to pursue regionalism to recycling.”

Commissioner Michael Mezmar called recycling “a quality of life issue.”

“A cost-effective recycling program makes the community a better place to live,” he said.

Call to fund recycling center

Since last month, residents have called on commissioners to continue funding the recycling center to help the environment.

At schools, they said, the city’s program has helped students learn the importance of recycling to improve the planet’s future.

During the Wednesday meeting’s public comment period, resident Christy Tovar argued officials could shift money to reopen the recycling center.

The city is transferring about $481,000 from its sanitation fund along with a $519,000 franchise fee to the general fund, City Manager Dan Serna said in an earlier interview.

During the meeting, Tovar called via a telephone system, arguing the city could shift sanitation fund revenues to related expenses such as the recycling center’s operations.

During another phone call, a resident urged the city to join the state’s Alliance for Recycling while proposing recycling bins at every home.

Meanwhile, resident Tania Vega described recycling as an “essential service.”

“If it’s in trouble, the city should step in and keep it open,” she said, referring to the recycling center.