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Chron on One Bin

The Chronicle is ambivalent about the city’s One Bin for All proposal.

Details of the One Bin For All recycling proposal aren’t even solid yet, but groups like the Sierra Club have already started to line up against it. This gut rejection seems misguided, but people should have a healthy skepticism of this relatively untested new plan.

The premise of One Bin is that, instead of people sorting recycling at home, recyclable material can be sorted out of garbage en masse at centralized locations through a mix of manpower and mechanized processes. It isn’t as effective as sorting by hand, but it gets more recyclables in the end because it handles the entirety of the city’s garbage rather than whatever people decide to sort at home.

The problem with this method, according to some environmentalist advocates, is that it removes the responsibility of recycling and cultivates a culture of waste. Out of sight, out of mind.

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In a meeting with the Chronicle Editorial Board, the city’s Sustainability Director, Laura Spanjian, said the entire plan is supposed to be cost neutral, keeping the city’s trash budget essentially the same. A private contractor will design, build and operate the One Bin plant, in exchange for a contract on the city’s garbage. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and Houston won’t be stuck with the bill – unlike when a bond-funded trash incinerator project drove the city of Harrisburg, Pa., into bankruptcy.

Still, dumping garbage is cheap in Texas, and it seems inevitable that the price the city pays on each ton will increase, despite claims otherwise. The real cost offset comes from One Bin’s one bin, meaning that the city only needs one truck instead of two for garbage and recycling. Slimming down unnecessary city operations is healthy for the long-term budget.

Conservative skepticism still leads to an arched eyebrow. Houston government shouldn’t be the testing ground for new technology, and a few more years of experience in other cities could help refine the process. The Montgomery plant does not accept items such as kitty litter and dirty diapers, which are supposed to be tossed in a separate container. Their experience should lead Houstonians to worry whether we’ll just end up with a One Bin for (Almost) All.

As we know, the city received five proposals in July. We don’t know a whole lot about them just yet, but I expect we’ll hear more soon. The Chron lists three concerns about One Bin – cost, effectiveness, and the “out of sight, out of mind” problem – but they didn’t mention the two biggest ones that opponents have harped on. One is the possibility/likelihood that some amount of waste will be incinerated, and the other is that the so-called “dirty MRFs” will have less value as recyclable material than they would as separated materials. The city strongly disputes these arguments, and I’m not sure why the Chron didn’t at least mention any of that. I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to arbitrate that. I’m still waiting on a response from Laura Spanjian to what Zero Waste Houston has been saying, some of which was in that post of mine linked to above. I would love for this to work and I hope that the latest generation of technology can make it work, but it remains to be seen what has been proposed.

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One Comment

  1. Melanie S says:

    Two points on the “recent successes”:

    San Jose’s resource recovery park is a two-bin system. See video here: http://www.republicservices.com/site/santa-clara-ca/en/pages/san-jose-resources.aspx#video

    Montgomery’s recycling numbers are self-reported and appear to be false. They are claiming 60% diversion when they have not even built or permitted the composting site yet, which is impossible!

    As our report shows and as the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries agrees, one bin systems perform no better than our current, partial recycling system: http://waste360.com/single-stream/isri-takes-recycling-positions-one-bin-collection-kill-switches?NL=WST-03&Issue=WST-03_20140811_WST-03_738&YM_RID=hcclark@rice.edu&YM_MID=1480757&sfvc4enews=42&cl=article_1
    (free subscription)

    We need at least two bins for every home, apartment and commercial building in the City. We need to start pilot programs for composting/organics collection. These types of programs will stimulate the economy and protect the environment better than a 1-bin incinerator proposal.

    See our recent post on Covanta’s incinerator in Indianapolis for which they are building a one-bin system. One-bin systems are designed for incinerators, not recycling: http://zerowastehouston.org/2014/08/indianapolis-debating-real-recycling-vs-dirty-mrf-and-incinerator/

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