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What other environmental groups think about “One Bin For All”

As you know, last week the city announced that it had won the $1 million runnerup prize from the Bloomberg Foundation that would enable it to begin work on a single-bin solution for solid waste and recycling. 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 concerns about it. This got me wondering what other environmental groups thought about this proposal, since none of the coverage I’ve read has included any discussion of that. So I contacted several environmental groups and asked them for their feedback on this proposal. These are the responses I got.

From Frank Blake of the Houston chapter of the Sierra Club:

1. The proposal claims that it will reduce air pollution by reducing truck routes. But I don’t understand how truck travel would be significantly reduced since the overall volume of material to be transported would be the same. (50 truck loads of trash and 50 truck loads of recycling are still 100 truck loads if you combine it all; and since trash trucks fill up fairly quickly, there wouldn’t be much reduction in travel miles).

2. Since this ‘innovative’ method has not been tested on a large scale, and involves multiple technologies, is it really more cost effective than other existing methods? The costs to develop ‘innovative’ technological approaches often exceed estimates. And does the ‘One Bin’ collection method just shift certain processing costs down the line to other stages? Or result in reduced market value of recycled materials (contamination issues)?

3. Initial source separation enhances the market value of certain recyclables – e.g., paper and cardboard. Paper products co-mingled with other trash and food waste would have significantly reduced value, and limited recycling options. If you want to efficiently recycle paper products, one doesn’t mix them with food waste and other contaminants.

4. Composting is mentioned as a component of the ‘One Bin for All’ program. But how is it possible to maintain quality control for compost generated from general trash collections? General trash would include everything from broken glass, fluorescent lights (mercury), pharmaceuticals, and a variety of hazardous substances. What could such compost be used for? (Note: both Austin and San Antonio have initiated pilot curbside compost collections – i.e., compost materials are collected separately from general trash and recyclables).

5. What ‘waste to fuel’ technologies would be involved? The use of municipal waste as fuel can present problems because of the possible inclusion of contaminants and hazardous wastes. Where would such ‘waste to fuel’ facilities be located? Would the public be involved in any ‘waste to fuel’ decisions?

6. Other cities, including Dallas and Austin have adopted zero waste plans, with goals to reduce waste going to landfills by 90% and more. Houston has not yet adopted a long range plan or goals. Would adoption of a “One Bin for All” program with expensive processing facilities limit future options in Houston? What if there is a ceiling on the effective recycling rates that this method can accomplish? (and there is concern that the claimed “up to 70% rate” is overly optimistic).

7. How does a “One Bin for All” program really discourage waste, or encourage more ‘sustainable’, lower CO2 emitting lifestyles? It seems to do the opposite in ways, by sending a message to the public that it doesn’t matter what they discard, and that they don’t need to be conscious of recycling. (if recycling is perceived as difficult in some quarters, it is in part because the City of Houston has invested very little in public education over the years and has had different recycling programs or lack of programs in different parts of the City).

8. I am concerned and puzzled that the City of Houston would roll out this type of comprehensive proposal without more consultation, input and involvement with the public, and recycling and environmental advocates.

Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund had this to say:

I think the One Bin proposal is an interesting and innovative approach to the issue. The city of Houston needed to take a proactive step to deal with its low recycling rate. This proposal beat out many others from other cities to win the Bloomberg Foundation grant, and I would like to see it succeed. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.

Finally, Luke Metzger of Environment Texas said he would defer to TCE on this issue, since they are the experts on waste among Texas environmental groups and he had not been following the story. David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters also deferred to TCE, saying that there’s a division of labor in the environmental community, with TCE taking the lead on waste issues. I hadn’t considered that before now, but in retrospect it makes sense.

So there you have it. There are definitely concerns about the Houston One Bin solution, though they are not universally shared. I do think we are low on detail at this point, and it would be nice to know more about the history of this kind of solution in other cities, and why Houston thinks past failures can be overcome. I also think Frank Blake makes a strong point about the message this sends that recycling would become the city’s responsibility and not the individual’s, which in turn provides a disincentive for people to think about their own usage patterns and their own need to follow the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. The idea of recycling just doesn’t exist for a lot of people. I base this statement on the fact that every public recycling receptacle I’ve ever seen in Houston always has at least as much trash in it as recyclables, and every public trash can always has lots of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other obvious recyclables; this is true even when the trash can and the recycling bin are right next to each other. People just don’t think about it. I suspect that even in neighborhoods with the 96-gallon single-stream recycling bins, participation is less than it should be, and in neighborhoods that still use the little bins that don’t take glass or cardboard, it’s pathetically low. That’s without taking into account apartments, offices, restaurants, and so forth. This is the crux of the city’s case for the one bin solution. One could certainly argue that a combination of a more aggressive single-stream rollout plus a PR campaign to educate people about recycling would be a more ideal way for the city to go. I agree that it would be more ideal, but it’s not clear to me that it would get better results, even if the claims about how much material can be usefully recovered from a single bin solution are overstated. What’s the minimum level of participation in single-stream recycling that’s necessary to be “better” than the single-bin solution? I don’t know the answer to that.

Anyway. I would certainly prefer that Houston be a better recycling city. I’m open to arguments that it’s possible to get to where we should be as a city without the one bin solution. I get the concerns, and I plan to follow up with the city to see how they would respond to them. What are your thoughts?

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11 Comments

  1. We have the 96 gallon deal at our house. There’s a button-deal on the bin that IDs our load and credits us towards a goofy array of awards, cookie cakes and discount tickets, etc.; pretty lame. I see the same trash in the bins and recyclables in the trash that you mention. Have always wished for more of a carrot and stick approach, with people that generate a lot of trash paying more for service and maybe people that do recycling right getting free pick-up.

  2. becky says:

    I agree with Mr. Blake – this approach doesn’t encourage people to recycle – it simply tries to catch the things they should have recycled. I wish there were some mechanism to inform them of the amount of items they could have put out to recycle.

  3. Doris Murdock says:

    Thanks so much for the additional detail. It’s definitely food for thought-no pun intended.
    I especially appreciate Mr. Blake’s feeling that the emphasis should be on an individual’s responsibility, not the city’s responsibility to make the ‘one bin’ or any plan workable. Slightly similar, here in the Heights, I can guarantee you that on any given Monday, 37% – 40% of the blocks will have trash, mostly yard waste out by the curb for Thursday pick-up. This demonstrates a serious lack of responsibility for trash, a public eyesore, not to mention violation of city ordinance.

  4. Joel says:

    this does fail to reinforce the recycling (much less composting) message, as several have already noted (although as becky points out, it might still lead to more stuff actually getting recycled).

    but (maybe worse?) it also teaches us that we can buy our way out of contributing to community efforts (presumably the city will pay someone else to do what each citizen could easily do for free). unless the cost is distributed progressively (!), this is regressive, citizen-as-rate-payer stuff. i think charly hoarse has the better idea.

  5. Ross says:

    We currently have a carrot/stick approach for those who generate more trash. If you need more than the big bin for your waste, you have to pay extra for a second one.

    I would be thrilled to have the big green bin for recycle. Maybe then my wife would quit driving 5 jars to the recycle place on Center.

  6. matx says:

    The large bins that some neighborhoods have are great, and I wish those neighborhoods who have them would use them to demonstrate it’s a good program for all, then it would no longer be a “pilot” program.

    Businesses can get them for about the cost of an extra regular trash container if you pay up front for 6 or 12 months. I tried to get a regular green bin from the city when one at work was taken up on heavy trash day, but cannot get a replacement for it. Our only option from the city is to get the trash container for an additional cost. The considerate trash collectors still pick up our recycling, though, even without an “official” bin or container.

  7. christi says:

    Let me try to help. For Frank, #1, 2 sets of trucks required to pick up recyclables and garbage. With one truck, there is an incremental increase in # of trucks. With 2 separate routes, it is an exponential increase. #2 They’ve been doing this in Europe for decades. They have very little space for landfilling. #3 Contaminated recyclables are not mixed with clean for conversion or resale, they can’t be. If 1 ton of waste is comprised of 300 lbs. of paper (EPA) how many coffee grounds will it take to contaminate? Answer, you’re kidding right? Also, if you get 10% clean total with curbside and you get 60% clean and 15% dirty with one can, have you benefited overall? #4 Please look up closed loop anaerobic digestion systems. If separated properly, they work very well on msw. #5 please google CRI/Criterion, Agylix and others. Waste to fuels is the future of renewable energy and its not a lab project either. #6 You’d prefer legislation over private commercial action? #7 Again, public education is not the answer. Just ask MADD.
    #8 They seem to have done quite a bit of research!
    Finally, if TCE is the “expert” in solid waste in Texas, we have a problem Houston. They are a non profit organization, not an environmental one and have shown themselves to be the “Bradley Angel” of the environmental community in Texas.
    Remember, you can’t burn it or bury it to count as Zero Waste. Houston has the answer and it didn’t take public money or public ordinance to find it. Let’s give it a shot.

  8. mc says:

    I think that it’s wonderful the COH is investing and researching innovative technologies to avoid sending waste to landfills! However, if we want to make an impact and effect a significant change we MUST also change the behavior and culture of our citizens. There has not been enough public dialogue and healthy debate over this idea. I would like to see the City engage in a thoughtful planning process that includes various stakeholders and interested citizens. This project has huge potential! Wouldn’t it be nice if this innovative recycling center could revive an underserved area of the City? It could be a place people wanted to visit – a benchmark for other Cities by incorporating thoughtful design from renowned architects and renowned engineers – there’s a thought! “If you can dream it, you can achieve it here.” – Mayor Parker

    Moving forward with this new technology has potential to be a good thing, but let’s not forget about the education element and the importance of behavior change. Real change requires effort – a united effort by the majority. San Francisco did not get to an 80% recycling rate without pushing measures that emphasize a social awareness which impels to action. It would be naive to think that Houston can achieve significantly higher recycling rates with a single approach “one bin for all” solution. If we want to be a leader nationally for sustainability efforts – it’s going to take much more effort. Other US and European cities have spent decades trying to change the culture and practices of their citizens to use less and recycle more. Education efforts are successful, it just takes time! Houston has not put in nearly enough time or effort on this issue. “One bin for all” technology is a good start, but that’s all it is – a start. Until we can say with confidence that recycling and sustainability is important to Houstonians (I mean really important), we will continue to find ourselves coming up short.

  9. […] week, I asked several environmental groups for feedback on the city’s One Bin For All proposal. I said I would follow up on that with the city. I […]

  10. BJG says:

    As to individual responsibility for recycling, there’s no question we’d like to think it would ultimately work. But after 40 years, A) we have 30% nationwide participation and B) we have trash in our recycling and recycling in our trash, further reducing the effectiveness. Even to the extent that millions upon millions of man hours are currently spent sorting recyclables prior to placing the containers at the curb, the participation level is paltry and the error rate is considerable, even by well-meaning participants, and we can’t separate nearly as many commodities as we could with “One Bin For All”.
    When Steve Jobs designed a product, he made sure you could get what you wanted within a couple of clicks, to ensure ease of use for his customers. Some people, like you and me (or you wouldn’t be on this site), would sort our stuff and walk to a recycling center, rather than let a single gum wrapper go in the trash. We’re not the problem. It’s the buttheads that insist that it be one click and foolproof, or they’re just not gonna do it. We can sit and bemoan the fact that people should do this, or we wish they would do that, or why can’t people just . . . . , but in the meantime, we’re burying most of our glass, metals, electronics, plastic, paper, other organic matter, etc., and then using energy, generally non-renewable, to produce more, often from finite sources.
    I think it’s great that we have world class Football, Baseball, Basketball, and now Soccer facilities. We have the finest Medical Center in the world. Our Theatre is probably the second best in the country. We are the Energy capital of the world and home to many of the top companies in America. I think this is exactly the bold initiative this City should take at this time, to show the world that we are serious about the environment. I’m all in, on “One Bin For All”.

  11. Anna says:

    We are lucky to be in a one green recycling bin program. I also have a little compost pile in my backyard. Our family of three generates one little grocery-size bag of trash in a regular week, which mostly consists of plastic packages. Our parties generate more, but I am working on it too. I reduced using disposable items at the party. Yes, I wash dishes after party! Also I put a box for plastic/glass etc. so my guests could place their trash in the right place. I do not spend more then 5 minutes a day to sort out our trash. My opinion: if we accept One Bin for all offer – all the civilized world will laugh at us and hate us for being lazy pigs. I will be ashamed to live in Houston. And I do not like the idea to literally dump $100 million, do you? Instead , please provide all the city with big recycling bins and explain people really well (in schools, colleges etc.) HOW and WHY to use them