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Not everyone likes the One Bin solution

From the inbox:

Texas Campaign for the Environment vowed today to mobilize Houstonians against Mayor Annise Parker’s so-called “One Bin for All” proposal, saying that the scheme will take recycling away from the minority of residents who already have it, delay expanding it to new neighborhoods and lay the groundwork for future environmental damage.

“This has been tried before, it’s called a dirty materials recovery facility, or dirty MRF,” says Tyson Sowell, Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment in Houston. “Similar facilities have been built elsewhere with promises of huge recycling rates, but none have delivered on their promise and were abandoned.”

The city is proposing that Houstonians put all their waste into one bin where it will be separated mechanically at a new $100 million facility to be located at a landfill. The city claims that technology exists for separating out recyclables from other garbage which could improve the Houston’s recycling rate to 75%. Environmental and industry groups say the facility will not work and will only delay expanding curbside recycling to all Houston residents.

“Mayor Annise Parker has ambitious goals, but all of us will be sorely disappointed when $100 million gets spent on a facility which leaves us worse off than before,” Sowell said. “We want to work with the city, but we are accountable to the environment, and a dirty MRF is wasteful and ill-advised.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment is preparing to release later this week two open letters to the mayor expressing skepticism over the scheme, one from recycling industry leaders and another from national recycling advocates, including Annie Leonard of “Story of Stuff” fame. According to the letters, many valuable recyclables, like paper, cardboard and some plastics, become contaminated during comingling, preventing them from having any value in the marketplace.

“Contamination is an issue with any recycling program,” says Rick Anthony, founder of the Grassroots Recycling Network and pioneer in the field of recycling. “But when you are purposely putting your coffee grounds in with your newsprint it devalues what could have been two valuable commodities. You can’t recycle that paper and you compost those coffee grounds. They become useless. Separating at the curb is the only way to ensure high recycling rates.”

Additionally, advocates say that another key problem with Houston’s proposal is that it encourages residents to put their electronic waste, like computers and televisions, in the same bin as other discards.

“Computers and televisions do not belong in the same bin as dirty diapers,” says Mike Buckles, owner and operator of TechnoCycle, an electronics recycling company based in Houston. “This has the potential to create a whole host of health and safety issues for companies like mine. I don’t want to deal with old food stuck on a computer monitor.”

Houston is behind other major cities when it comes to recycling, with a majority of residents having no recycling available at their home. The city’s application for the Bloomberg Grant admitted that “the mayor is constantly besieged by citizens to bring recycling to their neighborhoods.” The One Bin proposal would remove curbside recycling from neighborhoods where it already exists, and would foreclose any plans to expand it into any of the neighborhoods now seeking it.

“We know what works and we know that this doesn’t. These types of facilities have proven to be ineffective, but separating your recyclables from your garbage at the curb works, it’s just as easy, and it’s a tenth of the price,” says Tyson Sowell. “We are talking with Houstonians door to door and they see through this. We trust the Mayor will change course soon and lead the city in the right direction on recycling.”

Texas 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 come to a judgment about it.

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12 Comments

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  2. Abby says:

    OMG, here we go again! If these fine folks at TCE had any kind of engineering background, this discussion would be much easier. Since not, let’s spell it out. Dirty paper, which has been contaminated in a route truck weighs more than clean paper. Dirty goes one way, clean goes another. There’s science in their but lets keep it simple for now. Coffee grounds may be a valuable resource for composting, but what if you don’t garden? Do we now want a separate route truck for coffee grounds? E-waste is an issue, but the food stuck to it is minuscule compared to the other potential problems I’m afraid. Lastly, Tyson’s comments about economics are ludicrous at best. Where do you live Tyson? Does the recycling program come anywhere close to paying for itself? Do you care or is this another one of your ideas that will need my money to support it and frankly I can’t afford your idea.
    When these fine folks come up with a workable solution to the dismal failure of curbside recycling, not to mention the total disregard for commercial recycling, maybe I can pay attention to their diatribe. Meanwhile, let’s give this public/private partnership a chance since it won’t cost me anymore than I’m already paying which doesn’t even cover the current costs.

  3. Abby says:

    OOooops! I forgot. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Bloomberg Philanthropies, one of the most influential environmental organizations on planet earth making this award. Is it any wonder the TX Campaign for the Environment is the ONLY environmental group deriding this proposal? Do I smell a rat? This is a supposed environmental group against a concept that keeps waste out of landfills. Something is terribly wrong here and unfortunately, I get the distinct aroma of dirty money all around them.

  4. Tyson Sowell says:

    Abby,

    I’d like to answer the questions you raised. On composting, after we have a comprehensive recycling program, one where everyone in the city can participate at home, at work, and in public, yes, we do want a separate compost program. Other cities are doing it and they are achieving great results. San Francisco, where our Sustainability Director hails from, is currently diverting 80% of their waste from landfills using proven techniques that TCE endorses.

    The issue with E-waste is bigger than just food sticking to it. There is the high potential for breakage that could lead to exposure of toxic materials, like lead and mercury, to employees of the facility itself and the added health and safety issues of the actual electronic recyclers.

    I live in Houston. And you are correct, no recycling program in Texas pays for itself so there is no reason to believe that this idea would either. In fact, and Laura Spanjian, Houston Sustainability Director, said on the radio that $17 million would pay for the expansion of the current program to all city serviced Houstonians. The project they are proposing, however, will cost $100 million at minimum and recent estimates have put it at $150 million. The fact is, for less than $1 per month, everyone could have recycling in Houston. I’m sure you can afford 3 cents per day.

    Also, in the City of Houston, you don’t pay anything for garbage or recycling unless you are serviced by an HOA, which if you don’t have city services then this proposal wouldn’t affect you. As it stands, this facility would only service folks who currently have City of Houston services.

    Curbside is not a failure. It works when people have the opportunity. The problem is that the majority of Houstonians have never had the opportunity and that’s not the fault of Houstonians or their unwillingness to recycle, that’s the fault of leadership not having the political backbone to make waste and recycling a priority.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. Abby says:

    Thanks Tyson, but let’s look at some factual information. No city in Texas has an organics collection program which is the only way you could gather the materials for compost. I understand the proposed facility can which, as you probably know, captures GHGs. The comprehensive recycling programs you speak of do exist in Dallas, where the diversion rate is approx. 12%, Austin where it’s approx. 35%, and El Paso where it’s 8%. San Francisco does have a very high diversion rate, but what does it cost each household monthly, about $90+? What difference does it make if a private company puts up the $150 million for a facility? Do you think they would risk the capital if they, or their investors, didn’t think it would work? Also, yes, I can afford 3 cents per day, but it won’t get us recycling here in Houston I’m afraid, not even close?

    Also who do you think pays for the curbside collection of both residential garbage and curbside recycling? If it comes from the City’s general fund, who pays that? You now want more curbside recycling costs to be borne by the City? In addition, this facility could pave the way for more residential recycling and one day include commercial as well, which is a much larger total than the single family. We’re finally being proactive.

    I’m sorry Tyson, but curbside recycling is an abysmal failure, not just in Houston but in every city in America. We have the same system for garbage disposal we have had since man first appeared on the planet; dig a hole and bury it. This can be changed drastically and efficiently with the capture of all the wealth of value in those commodities in the waste. They can be converted, not incinerated, but converted using new technologies being discovered almost daily. How can you say you are affiliated with an environmental group and not be jumping for joy at the prospect of such a facility?

    And sorry, but if your e-waste recycling facility owners are so concerned, they should not be in the business. I know several who safely and effectively recycle e-waste and would gladly help this new business venture because they know the environmental benefits of not landfilling those components.

    Mayor Parker is the epitome of the political backbone you speak of. She knows the recycling numbers for the 100,000+ Houstonians who have and have had recycling for years and again they are abysmal! Ms. Spanjian was brought in, from San Francisco I might add, to do just this. Find a way to address this process from a position of efficiency and effectiveness and an environmental group is in opposition? I am appalled! Finally, we get the someone in a leadership role who will make waste and recycling a priority and you offer this diatribe? Please spare us all.

    While I appreciate what the environmental community does to help get us on the right path, because it is desperately needed,yours is the only one speaking out against this and I am very suspect of your motives, sorry.

    Thank you Ms. Spanjian, thank you Mayor Parker, and thank you Bloomberg Philanthropies. Most of us feel you have made an incredible step in the right direction and we will probably be eternally grateful!

  6. Ross says:

    Abby, recycling is abysmal here because Parker and the rest of the City officials just don’t care enough to make it work. My neighborhood has been begging for the large green bins for a couple of years. Nothing from the City. Zip. They just don’t care. I also think this one bin plan is pie in the sky BS, especially at the level of waste we have here in Houston. All it does is take high quality materials and make them low quality materials. And, honestly, it’s not like we are going to run out of land fill space any time within the next 100,000 years.

  7. Christi says:

    Ross, you’re probably one of those who beg for it till it’s time to pay for it and then it’s “what, I thought government did this”. I guess the level of waste in Houston is different than the level of waste in Dallas, LA, Philly or anywhere else? No, you may have more because of the population, but for the most part, I think garbage here is garbage there. As for not running out of landfill space, that speaks to your level of understanding of the environmental aspects of this whole deal.
    Thanks for those thoughtful comments.

  8. Steven says:

    Realistically, the only way to get larger numbers of people to recycle is to make it more convenient and the one bin approach does that in spades. A friend living north of the city in the Terranova (sp?) subdivision spent a great deal of time on bringing recycling to his neighborhood several years back, the residents voting overwhelmingly to give it a try using those large bins (90 gallon size, on wheels). The issue of toxic wastes like CFL light bulbs and tech waste is handled by a separate process where the company, Waste Management, comes out to get them as needed. The cost was/is mostly related to the bin rental and according to informal estimates, has made a huge impact on how much material is carted off to the landfill, saving costs both in transportation as well as dumping fees to offset the increased costs of a separate pickup.

    He said that if everyone was issued a compost bin, the off the ground kind that seals to reduce vermin, it would pay for itself but that was too large a leap for the mostly older residents to go for. On recycling day, his streets are lined with the containers, about 50% of people putting them out each week or every other week. He doesn’t have the final numbers but claims it is the best program in the area in large part because they use a single container for almost all waste.

    I wish the city much luck in getting the program to work, maybe it will spread to the rest of us if things work out since few HOA boards in this region seem willing to even try projects like this. There are always a vocal minority of people shouting down such requests, coming up with stall tactics, minority report studies of ill repute, or simply taking any failure from the distant past to show how these programs “can’t possibly work”.

  9. Ross says:

    Christi, I would pay $5 per month to get one of the big green bins. It’s the City that is being idiotic about them.

    I have a fine understanding of the environmental impacts of trash. This is a huge state. We could turn a West Texas county into a landfill and never notice. The US is not particularly crowded, especially outside the rural areas.

    I do know that the single stream for all garbage/recycling is probably not going to work for a city the size of Houston, and wonder just who is going to get rich from it.

  10. Guidry says:

    Ross, as huge as Texas is, transporting millions of cubic feet of waste for miles further than need be strikes me as expensive. Reducing the stream of trash in whatever way possible as close to the source as possible seems fairly wise by comparison. If more folks would compost and demand less packaging to begin with, we’d all be better off than dumping trash in the gulf or carting so much waste as far away as need be for your landflll of choice in western Texas.

    Steven, those 96 gallon cart bins are great for keeping track of rubbish and keeping animals away from it, much better than the pictured bins that overflow all too easily. Recycling as a fad needs to go away so that recycling as a lifestyle can make better inroads. As diesel prices remain high, moving trash far enough away to satisfy people will get more expensive, reducing volume something we should all work at.

  11. [...] While this announcement was generally met with cheers, the Texas Campaign for the Environment was not among those cheering. Their opposition to this proposal was a reiteration of previously expressed [...]

  12. [...] While this announcement was generally met with cheers, the Texas Campaign for the Environment was not among those cheering. Their opposition to this proposal was a reiteration of previously expressed [...]

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