Mostly familiar information if you’ve been following this story, but a good overview if it’s new to you.
Laura Spanjian, Houston’s director of sustainability, says the city is spending millions to expand its conventional recycling service and is still evaluating all the options for its one-bin concept. The city hopes that the one-bin idea would eventually divert three-quarters of its trash from landfills and that new facilities would create more than 100 “high tech” jobs.
Spanjian said the city believes its proposal is the best way to boost dismal recycling rates and save money.
“We’re not paying the capital at all,” she said. “Our goal is to keep it cost-neutral.”
Kim Jones, a a professor of environmental engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said that recyclable material is most valuable when it is dry, so mixing it with trash such as food could make it harder to sell. “That’s going to contaminate your paper, and your end user is not going to want that material,” he said.
The Texas Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group, said that China, a major market for America’s recyclables, has recently begun rejecting contaminated paper. And the group’s program director, Melanie Scruggs, is skeptical about the city’s promise of jobs.
Sorting facilities “depend on workers to sort out the waste from the recycling, so whatever objects you’re telling people to throw in there with recyclables potentially creates dangerous working conditions,” Scruggs said. “Nobody wants to create jobs where you’re sorting through trash.” While Houston points to Roseville, Calif.’s one-bin system as a model, Scruggs said her group has visited the town’s facility and found workers who had to sort animal waste from other trash, a potential health risk.
Spanjian said the sorting and drying technologies for waste have improved. She added that the city would turn whatever is not recyclable into energy through some form of gasification. That would involve heating the waste in a chamber to create synthetic gas, which could then generate electricity or be turned into fuel.
But questions also remain about the waste-to-energy strategy. A study released last year by SAIC, an engineering and consulting firm, found that the cost of turning waste into usable energy could run higher than $100 per ton. Houston now spends just $24.60 per ton on landfill fees.
“There’s a huge interest in the topic,” said Scott Pasternak, an environmental consultant who worked on the study. “It can technically be done, but the cost of doing that is going to be, at this point in Texas, substantially greater than existing technologies.” Pasternak said landfill costs are much higher in California, which is why waste-to-energy strategies may be more feasible there.
Here’s the One Bin website. The main thing I learned from this story that I didn’t already know is that Austin’s recycling rate – 24% – is nothing to write home about. The city’s strongest argument is that it can get a much higher diversion rate via One Bin than it could via single stream recycling. That’s hotly disputed by opponents like the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who argue (among other things) that a broad-based education and outreach campaign combined with finishing the job of bringing single stream recycling to all eligible Houston households would boost diversion rates considerably. I get what they’re saying, but I think that would need to be an intensive and long-term project. As it is, even in neighborhoods like mine, lots of people don’t use the big green bins, and in my experience every public space that has separate garbage and recycling receptacles there’s more garbage in the recycling bins and more recyclables in the garbage bins. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of work to change habits, is what I’m saying. Taking an approach that doesn’t depend on people doing the right thing has some appeal to it.
Be that as it may, TCE has launched a new website, Zero Waste Houston, to push back on One Bin. Their strongest argument to me is the fact that none of this is proven technology yet, and claims about turning non-reusable waste into energy are suspect at best. I had the opportunity to hear Don Pagel, the director of the One Bin program, and Melanie Scruggs of TCE talk to our civic association recently. They both do a good job advocating for their respective positions, and as much as they disagree on this strategy they both agree on the ultimate goal of diverting less waste to landfills. The main fact I learned from that meeting was that the city will be putting out RFPs in the next month or so. RFQs were put out last year, and this is the next step. If anything is going to happen with this – and there’s no guarantee of that – we’ll know it in the next twelve months or so.