Tucson shut 2 recycling centers last month, unclear if more will follow
The city of Tucson only has five remaining neighborhood recycling centers, after closing two last month that had been plagued by illegal dumping.
Officials shuttered the facilities at Mansfield Park and the Ward 2 office the last week of July. The reduction leaves Tucson, for the time being, with fewer recycling centers than the number of wards in the city and marks a continued decline in the number of neighborhood recycling locations.
The service, which began in 1997, has remained for individuals who live in apartments, as at-home recycling has become widespread, said Cristina Polsgrove, a spokeswoman for Tucson's Environmental and General Services Department. The two centers that were closed had become inundated with non-recyclable items, such as furniture at the Mansfield Park location, she said.
The illegal dumping at the two centers became a matter of public safety, Polsgrove said. "We couldn't be in the situation of having something that we are providing that is actually, potentially harmful to people," she told the Tucson Sentinel.
One city employee has been out for four months for an injury from one of the sites, Polsgrove said. The man slipped on excess cardboard left on the ground, while a resident has also been injured. Fires have also been set at some of the centers, she said.
Among those suspected of the illegal dumping were small businesses, Polsgrove said, due to large items such as carpet rolls being left at the sites. The city has reduced the size of the containers in the past, she said, and reduced the number of centers from 13 to one for each of the six wards. The remaining locations were placed near government facilities, such as a fire station, in hopes of reducing the abuse.
Some of the five remaining locations are beginning to be "overrun" after the closure of the other two. The current centers have their dumpsters emptied six days a week, Polsgrove told the Sentinel.
The fate of the remaining five is uncertain.
"We'll see what happens, but the more that they are abused, it becomes a safety issue and also a public health issue," she said.
Brian Dolan, who lives in the northeast part of town, went to the East Side center when it was located at Udall Park, where people would leave Christmas trees and other garbage. He hoped that things would change when the center moved to the Ward 2 parking lot.
"And I think it may have started off a little better, but people go there, they might have a truckload of cardboard or something and if the container is full they just throw it alongside," Dolan told the Sentinel.
A few months before the center closed, Dolan saw signs warning people of a potential closure if things did not improve. Apparently, they did not.
The closure of the East Side spot led Dolan to request a recycling bin from his service provider, Waste Management, which he said he does not have room for. "It's just sad to see people like that, they ruined it for everybody," he said.
The closure of that recycling drop-off spot is temporary, Ward 2 Councilmember Paul Cunningham said. "So our plan is to reopen it. But we've got to find another spot," he said. While negotiations are underway for a future site nearby, no location has been finalized, he said.
The service took up much of the office's parking spots and became a place where trash was left, Cunningham told the Sentinel. Nearby residents also had problems with the center.
"They expressed concerns almost on a daily and weekly basis about having the recycling center just in the part of noise, the trucks having to be there every day to remove," he said. "It wasn't a really good site in the first place, it was always aimed to be temporary."
The Ward 2 office has plans to move to the intersection of Broadway and Pantano next year, which also factored into the decision to close the facility, Cunningham said. Polsgrove was unaware of plans to open another center in the ward.
Plans for a new recycling location would have to be determined after the move, she said. "We provide the service, so they'd have to tell us that they want it, and once they identify a location we'd have to evaluate it to make sure that we could service it safely," Polsgrove said.
Tumultuous few years for recycling
Tucson reduced the recycling service it offered residents in the fall of 2019. Pick-up for recyclables switched to every other week instead of once per week.
The change came after China implemented its "National Sword" policy in 2018, which heavily restricted recycled materials the country would accept from the rest of the world. Before the policy, China imported about one-third of the world's recyclables, Polsgrove said.
This has led recycling in the United States to become more localized and regional, Polsgrove said. Republic Services, which services Tucson, has told local officials that none of its recycling is being sent overseas.
The year following the policy, the city paid almost $3 million for recycling, whereas previously the city had made up to $1.5 million a year from selling recyclables. The city decided it was time to make a change.
Following public outreach like town halls and a three-month survey of residential recycling bins, Tucson switched to the bi-weekly schedule, Polsgrove said. The survey found that 60 percent of recycling containers, if filled with the proper recyclables, were only half-full each week.
"And when we considered that most people's recycle bins were not full. And putting a truck out on the road is the most expensive thing we do," she said. "It made sense to go to every other week because most people can get by with that, most families."
For those that find it difficult to wait two weeks there are options.
The Los Reales Landfill has a free neighborhood recycling center, and the city's monthly household hazardous waste collection events have a roll-off for recyclables, Polsgrove said. Residents can also receive a second recycling bin at no additional cost.
Despite the cutback, the city remains in the red when it comes to recycling, she said, paying roughly $600,000 per year. Last month $20,000 of the expenses came from contaminated recycling, which is not unusual.
Bins being filled with things that can not be recycled currently costs the city as much as $30,000 per month, she told the Sentinel, with some individuals attempting to recycle yard debris, electronics, dirty diapers and dead animals.
The money is not the only focus of the city as some may believe, Polsgrove said.
"I know people think that for the city it's just about the money, but it really isn't," she said. "Because we believe in recycling, we think it's important, but it has to be done right."