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“One Bin For All” in the running for prize money

This happened before the election, which now seems as a remote a time as the 19th century.

Houston is one of 20 finalist cities from among the 305 nationwide that applied for a $5 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies for the boldest local initiative to address a national problem.

The city’s proposal, “Total Reuse — One Bin for All,” calls for the construction of a mega-recycling plant that could ultimately allow the city to recycle as much as 75 percent of all residential trash, up from just 14 percent now. More importantly to the average resident, it would allow you to throw all your garbage in a single can and have the city sort it out at the plant.

In the spring, Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce the grand-prize winner of the Mayors Challenge and four $1 million prize winners. This month a team of city officials is invited to attend the Bloomberg Ideas Camp, a two-day gathering in New York City during which they will collaborate with experts to prepare One Bin for All finalist application.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Parker’s statement. I like the idea of this and I am glad to see focus on Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate, but after I posted that first story I got some feedback from the Texas Campaign for the Environment, which is skeptical of this technology. The following was sent to me by Tyson Sowell to more fully explain their thinking on this:

Houston’s “one bin” waste reduction proposal: What exactly does this mean?

A few weeks ago the City of Houston’s Sustainability Department announced, to much fanfare, that they were considering a “One Bin” solution for collected recyclables, organics (like food waste), and garbage. In the meantime, City of Houston officials say they will keep working to expand single-stream recycling collection while they explore this other option. However, the technologies being mulled over are generally untested. Some technologies promoted by waste lobbyists as brave, new diversion techniques are actually destructive to the environment. While everybody likes innovative thinking, still, we have questions. Here are some questions we encourage Houstonians to ask about Houston’s “One Bin” proposal:

  • How has this technology worked elsewhere? We know that in other states and countries with materials recovery facilities which take in commingled trash and recycling (commingled MRF), they need either incineration or loopholes to reach meaningful “diversion” levels. What the city is proposing would include anaerobic digestion (AD; a process whereby microbes break down organic matter and produce methane to be used for energy) for organics and some of the paper; this is especially untested, and AD systems elsewhere are challenging to operate even with very controlled feedstocks and are very expensive to build. Lancaster, CA has signed a contract to try the technology the city is proposing, so why not wait to observe their performance before jumping in?
  • What will the markets be like for the recovered materials, and how do they compare with what we could get from expanded single-stream recycling? Historically, commingled MRF’s have to sell their paper and cardboard at lower prices because they are contaminated by being mixed in with garbage. The system envisioned here would put much of that paper into the AD, but
    is this a truly “higher and better use” than recycling? Are we saying that Houston is giving up on paper recycling? If so, the city needs to demonstrate why AD is a higher and better use for paper than recycling. TCE Executive Director Robin Schneider visited an out-of-state facility that separates recyclables mixed with trash and the valuable cardboard was clearly degraded.
  • How much would this cost? In particular, what would be the impact on tipping fees? Facilities of this sort in California have tipping fees more than 3 times what we are charged locally. In Dallas they were talking about these facilities in the $100 million range, but since something like this has never been built, we have no idea what cost overruns might look like, or what the long-term contractual obligations for the city might end up being. Ask the cities locked into ugly incinerator contracts from the ‘70s, and they’ll tell you that when it comes to trash technologies, extreme caution is crucial for local governments. Harrisburg PA, for example, has gone into bankruptcy because it went whole hog for what was supposed to be a cure-all incinerator. We need to show great care and proceed slowly before buying into this alleged solution to all of our diversion problems.
  • What will be the full long-term impact on reduction and reuse? Big increases in recycling are good, but not as good as big decreases in total discards. There is an ethical argument that encouraging throwaway mindsets and a disposable culture is absolutely unacceptable. Even under a less strict ethic, this proposal seems to do nothing to encourage reduction and reuse, and may even create incentives to throw things away. How does this proposal ensure that we are using fewer resources and consuming less stuff—not just recycling more—in the long-run?
  • Is this about the best use of our resources, or just the best we expect from Houston? We should not assume that Houston can’t recycle, or that folks here just don’t care enough. Sure, Houston is no San Francisco, but neither is Fresno, and Fresno has a 75% diversion rate without the need for risky new technologies. Fairfax County, Virginia is not setting the world on fire with 42%, but that is still 3 times higher than what we are doing in Houston right now. Orange County, North Carolina is at 61% waste reduction, and Nashville reduced waste by 30% in just three years. Their plan is to get to 60% reduction by 2018, and they are well on their way. Some of these communities—including San Francisco—are curious about the technology proposed here as a means of dealing with what is left over after recycling, composting, reduction, reuse and other diversion activities. Why shouldn’t we follow this same path by passing a Zero Waste Plan with strong benchmarks, putting proven policies in place and then circling back to these proposals once we have finished the basics and other communities have tested this new technology for us?

It be ars repeating that Laura Spanjian, the City’s Director of Sustainability, has made it clear that Houston will continue expanding curbside single-stream service. Houston has more households without curbside recycling than any in Texas and almost any big city in the country. It is clear that we need big changes, that they will not happen overnight and that we will need to be creative and flexible if we are going to catch up to where we ought to be. The least renewable resource of them all is time, but haste on waste policy can mean doing much more harm than good. These questions and others seek to ensure that our planet is the priority, and that Houston reaches true sustainability in a safe, proven and truly innovative fashion.

Some good questions to ponder, and I intend to have a conversation with Laura Spanjian about this in the near future to hear some more answers. The more discussion we have about this, the better. CultureMap has more.

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3 Comments

  1. We have two bins in Sherman: one for “normal garbage” and another for recyclable garbage (two different colors). They stand about 4 feet tall and are about 2.5 feet across. The normal garbage is collected every week and the recycle is collected every other week.

    I am amazed at how much actually can go into the recycled bin and how little goes into the garbage. The recycle fills up just as fast as the garbage, meaning the recycle is full every other week and the garbage rarely reaches the half-way point.

    I’m not sure how one bin will work, but two sure does.

  2. […] Campaign for the Environment had previously outlined its objections to the single bin plan here. At this point, the discussion is beyond my level of expertise. I will do my best to learn more and […]

  3. […] the link above to cast your vote. If you need a reminder of what this is about, see here and here for previous blogging, and here for Mayor Parker’s pitch for […]

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