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Really interesting story about a place most of us would not think to visit.

The open face of the Atascocita landfill in Humble slopes downward, where trucks unload the cast-off scraps of daily life. Bulldozers spread the debris to a depth of a few feet before trucks with spiked tires take turns compacting the heap, lumbering over the uneven surface.

Some 500 trucks dump garbage here each day and the mound keeps growing – but not as fast as it did just a decade ago, thanks to consumers’ recycling and composting habits and an effort by manufacturers to use lighter-weight materials for packaging. Population growth is what keeps the garbage pile growing now. Nationally, per-capita disposal rates have dropped close to the levels of the 1990s.

Houston-based Waste Management, the nation’s largest municipal waste company, said it lost $188 million in revenue last year, and $133 million the year before from lower volumes of all the materials it collects in trash and recycling. The company runs 247 solid waste landfills in the U.S. and Canada.

Its landfill management business, however, has fared better than collection and recycling, the company reported. Its landfills also accept waste from other collection companies that pay to drop the trash there. About 70 percent of the waste that comes in to Atascocita arrives on Waste Management trucks.

There, 25 employees process 4,500 tons of trash per day six days a week. Starting at 5 a.m. they’re screening for hazardous waste and taking trucks’ weight on scales. Others check the more than 30 pipes that gather gasses from completed landfill, herd trash trucks in and move screens around the open landfill to catch stray paper on windy days.


Nationally, in 2013 we sent 11 million fewer tons of trash to landfills than we did in 1990 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

Last year Texans each produced 6.58 pounds of waste per day. Though that’s higher than the last several years, the number didn’t drop below 7 pounds per person from 2000 until 2009, when the recession led to less consumption and less trash.

But according to the EPA, the amount of waste each American tosses reached its lowest point in 2013 since 1990. The agency estimates that about 2.89 pounds of trash per person each day actually ends up in a landfill.

Texas’ numbers are calculated differently to include some construction waste and don’t account for diversion to recycling and compost.

Recycling is cutting out a lot of the waste we now send to a sealed, compacted mound of trash.

The EPA reported that in 2013 more than a third of waste was recycled. Of the total 254 million tons of waste generated by American households and businesses last year, 87 million tons were diverted from landfills. We’re also using less paper, in the office and for the newspapers we read, reducing a lot of waste.

“Part of it is more aggressive recycling and part of it is from the packaging perspective there’s been a lot of light-weighting,” said Chuck Rivette, regional director of planning and project development for Waste Management.

Most packaging uses less material than it did several decades ago. Plastic water bottles use as much as 50 percent less plastic and thin plastic pouches have replaced bulkier plastic bottles and boxes.

“Even if you bought the same number of bottles an didn’t change your habits, your (trash) generation’s gone down,” said Anne Germain, director of waste and recycling technology for the National Waste & Recycling Association.

Like I said, a good read, and you’ll likely learn something from it as I did. The city’s goal needs to be to continue the downward trend of each person’s waste per day. More recycling – I was glad to hear multiple Mayoral candidates talk about bringing recycling to apartment complexes – and more composting would be good starts. If that means instituting a trash fee – to fund such activity and to help ease the current budget shortfall – then so be it. However we do it, that’s the destination we need to aim for – more recycling, more composting, less trash sent to landfills.

It’s hard out here on a recycler, part 3

A story in the WaPo about the ongoing struggles of the recycling business.

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities here in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. In fact, almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. And Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

In short, the business of American recycling has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears.

“If people feel that recycling is important — and I think they do, increasingly — then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” said David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler that owns the Elkridge plant and 50 others.

The Houston-based company’s recycling division posted a loss of nearly $16 million in the first quarter of the year. In recent months, it has shut nearly one in 10 of its biggest recycling facilities. An even larger percentage of its plants may go dark in the next 12 months, Steiner said.

The problems of recycling in America are both global and local. A storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide.

Environmentalists and other die-hard conservation advocates question if the industry is overstating a cyclical slump.

“If you look at the long-term trends, there is no doubt that the markets for most recyclables have matured and that the economics of recycling, although it varies, has generally been moving in the right direction,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks solid waste and recycling in New York.

“And that’s without factoring in the external impact of landfilling or anything else,” he added. “There aren’t a lot of people saying, ‘Send more material to landfills.’ ”

Still, the numbers speak for themselves: a three-year trend of shrinking profits and rising costs for U.S. municipalities — and little evidence that they are a blip.

Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system.

“We kind of got everyone thinking that recycling was free,” said Bill Moore, a leading industry consultant on paper recycling who is based in Atlanta. “It’s never really been free, and in fact, it’s getting more expensive.”


Clemm, the District’s recycling chief, said small efforts can begin to turn the tide. The District must begin by getting more garbage out of its recycling stream.

“Residents have a way to influence this by making sure they are recycling right,” she said.

Another possibility is to follow the urgings of the environmental community by expanding recycling programs to include composting — the banana peels and grass clippings degrading in landfills that by some estimates have become the nation’s third-biggest source of methane gas contributing to global warming. Composting is partly credited with the success of such cities as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle in increasing the share of the waste stream that is recycled each year.

See here and here for some background. The main thing I take away from this is that however intriguing the One Bin For All possibility may be, I just don’t see how it could be economically feasible at this time. Maybe in the future, and maybe never, but not now. It looks like that education/marketing blitz that opponents of One Bin like the Texas Campaign for the Environment have been advocating as the better alternative is the way we will have to go to ensure that our current recycling arrangements can be sustained. We need to do a better job of getting people to put only recyclables in their bins – and in the public receptacles that are often treated the same as garbage cans – and we need to seriously think about a separate collection process for compostable material, as a number of other cities have done. Needless to say, these are issues that the Mayoral candidates should be addressing, which means they need to be getting asked questions about them. I promise to do my part when it’s my turn to do so (and I have been doing so in many of the Council candidate interviews), but until then it would be nice if someone else thought to do it, too.

Recycling cartons

More curbside recycling options.

Houstonians accustomed to throwing out glossy cardboard cartons of milk, juice, soup and others foods and beverages now can send them to the curb in a green container for recycling.

The Carton Council, a consortium of carton manufacturers, has helped the city’s existing paper recycling processors purchase equipment that will keep much of these materials out of landfills.

The predominantly paper cartons can be repurposed into paper towels, tissues and even building materials, said Gary Readore, chief of staff in the city’s Solid Waste Management Department.

“We know it’s important to recycle. Citizens are always confronted with, ‘Is this recyclable or is it not?’ ” Mayor Annise Parker said. “When you have too many choices to make, people end up saying, ‘Oh well, I’m just not going to recycle it.’ We’ve … been working to expand options for what you can put in those big, green bins.”

See the City of Houston Solid Waste Facebook page for more. I’m excited by this, because cartons – milk and orange juice, mainly – are a big component of our trash volume these days. Beyond that, it’s things like #6 plastics, plastic bags and wrappings, and food waste. Some forms of #6 plastic – polystyrene – can be taken to city recycling centers, things like plastic bags can be taken to grocery stores, and we compost non-animal product food waste, but more curbside options would be nice, and would help increase participation rates. I don’t want to get into the One Bin debate here, I’m just saying that I look forward to the day when I hardly have any trash to put out. This is a step towards that and that’s a very good thing.

Collecting compost from restaurants

The city of Austin takes another step on its path towards zero waste.

Austin restaurants and other food businesses will have to compost food scraps starting in 2016, under new rules the City Council OK’d Thursday.

Food service businesses — including fast-food chains, caterers, cafeterias and bars — that are bigger than 5,000 square feet will be required to separate out organic and compostable materials from other trash and have them picked up by private haulers.

Smaller food businesses will have to comply starting in 2017.

Food trailers will be exempt for now, because the city needs to spend more time developing rules unique to them, said Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, the city of Austin’s trash and recycling department.

Under the rules passed Thursday, large food service businesses also will have to recycle several materials, including paper, plastics and aluminum, starting next year. Smaller food businesses will have to comply later.

The new rules aim to help the city meet its so-called zero waste goal of dramatically reducing the trash sent to landfills by 2040, Gedert said.

Food scraps and other compostable goods make up 40 to 50 percent of the trash that restaurants generate, Gedert said. Keeping those goods out of the landfill will go a long way toward achieving zero waste, Gedert said.

The policy passed Thursday builds on rules that the city enacted last fall, when it began requiring large apartment properties and office buildings to recycle more materials.


Don “Skeeter” Miller, co-owner of County Line restaurants and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, said the membership was initially skeptical of the compost rules but is now mostly supportive, mainly because the rules won’t take effect for a few years.

Austin already has a pilot program for curbside composting for residences. Restaurants are obviously a big source of food waste, so bringing them into the picture ought to make a significant difference. Here in Houston, the One Bin For All plan will deal with compostable refuse, but that is just for residences. Going back through my archives, it’s not clear to me if “residences” means just the places currently covered by city of Houston trash pickup or if it also includes apartments, but in either case it does not include businesses, particularly restaurants. I would like to see Houston extend its vision to include businesses and office buildings as well. One thing at a time, I understand, I’m just noting this for the record. I wish Austin all the best in this effort.

City response on “One Bin For All”

Last 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 have their response here, but before I get to it I want to report that I got some further feedback from David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters:

TLCV has revised our position on this issue. We have taken no position on Houston’s “One Bin For All” project. We are not deferring to any other organization on the merits of this project. The board of directors is evaluating the project and we will take a public position at a later date.

With that out of the way, here is what the city has to say about the One Bin project.

One Bin for All

By Laura Spanjian, Sustainability Director, City of Houston

The City of Houston is very proud to have won the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge and Fan Favorite contest for One Bin for All. Houston won $1 million for our idea (one of 5 winners out of 305 cities), after working through a challenging and thorough vetting process by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The City of Houston is excited to work on this game changing technology and make it successful for all Houstonians.

Houston is shaking up the status quo in so many areas:

  • Houston a bike friendly city? Yes, with our voter approved $100 million Bayou Greenway and almost $2 million expansion of Bike Share.
  • Houston a city that couples historic preservation with sustainability? Yes, the renovated historic Julia Ideson Building and Houston Permitting Center are both LEED Gold.
  • Houston a cutting edge forensics hub? Yes, the City is leading the nation in creation of an independently managed Forensic Science Center.
  • Houston a city with a growing public transportation system? Yes, we are currently investing more than $4.1 billion to expand the current 7.5 mile urban lightrail system toa 39mile system.
  • Houston a recycling leader? Yes, with the potential of One Bin for All, we can transform how people think about trash, making “trash” extinct.

These initiativesare transforming our City. As Mayor Annise Parker has said, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it here.”

The best part of exploring a new idea is to work with people to try to make it happen. There is so much opportunity to work towards something that could have huge positive benefits for Houston, the region and the nation. We appreciate the large positive response we have received in support of this idea, as well as the 15k people who voted for One Bin for All as their favorite idea. We also appreciate the questions and suggestions we have received about the idea, and look forward to continuing our many dialogues and a robust public process as we begin a competitive process to solicit a partner to work with the City. There are many process steps to be undertaken before anything is finally decided. Our Advisory Committee will also be launching soon to provide expert advice as we continue our work.

One Bin’s powerful metaphor is that everything is a resource and everything can be repurposed.

This innovation is in some ways a natural progression for the recycling industry. When recycling first started, it began for a single commodity and then it changed and more commodities were deemed to have value beyond their original use. This change caused these materials to have to be separated (plastics from aluminum from paper). Then, technology advanced again and could handle all recyclables commingled. The waste/recycling industry is constantly figuring out new and different ways that additional materials can be put into this “single-stream” recycling bin. Now, we believe technology has advanced again and is ready to address full commingling and the bulk of the remainder of the waste stream. Thus, the cycle continues its natural progression from dual-stream to single-stream to One Bin.

Unfortunately, what is not very well known is that recycling rates are still very low in the US. According to EPA estimates, after 40 years of recycling education cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash.The traditional sorting approach to recycling produces low rates of recycling and generally leads to multiple bins, multiple routes, increased operating costs and increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). We believe it’s worth our effort to try to find a better way to address resource recovery. And in the process, we will educate residents about the value all materials have. The concept of trash will be extinct and replaced by an understanding that all discarded material has value and can be recycled or repurposed. Nothing will be “thrown away” any longer.

Will the technology work to achieve high waste diversion?

Many of the individual components contemplated to be deployed have long been used in the waste, mining, food or refining industries. Currently, no facility integrates all of the technologies, processes and systems in the manner envisioned for One Bin for All—but, that’s the innovation. One Bin for All will expand on successful projects in California, Canada, Greece, Germany and England. City staff members have visited several of these facilities, and have seen that residential commingled materials can be processed into valuable resources.

Houston will have a robust and transparent competitive RFQ process and rely on an RFQ Review Committee, leveraging its technical and financial expertise to evaluate critical components of the RFQ responses. To enhance implementation and scalability, an Advisory Committee will provide guidance and recommendations to the City regarding technology evaluations, partnerships, education and outreach.

During negotiations, the City will work to include guarantees for equipment uptime performance and diversion rate and will require escrow funds to compensate the City if there is a breach of contract or default.

Plus, Houston will continue its expansion of its current single-stream recycling program until

One Bin for All is fully implemented. The recycling bins will be used as the One Bin, reinforcing the idea that trash is extinct and all discarded materials have value.

Can the facility be financed?

Raising capital and providing a location lies with the successful proposer. However, Houston can guarantee the city’s residential waste stream and a per ton processing fee for a long-term period, thus providing investors with the assurance they require as well as a reasonable rate of return. Houston can also cultivate commercial and regional partnerships to broaden the reach of the program. Houston will not proceed with a technology that requires the City to pay additional costs than what it is currently paying. The program will be designed to save costs, and by treating all trash as assets with value, generate revenue to the City.

What are the environmental benefits?

As Houston is able to recover and recycle more material from its waste stream, the City will have a reduction in GHGs. The principal source of the reduction will come from diverting organic material (primarily food) away from the landfill, because its decomposition releases methane. Methane is estimated by EPA to be 21 times more potent, in terms of its ability to warm the earth, than the more common carbon dioxide.

According to EPA’s Waste Reduction Model, by diverting 75% of the mixed municipal solid waste to reuse/recycling and composting processes, Houston will reduce roughly 3.72 metric tons of carbon equivalent per ton of MSW diverted.

Houston has been designated a non-attainment area for ozone, a criteria pollutant under the Clean Air Act. One Bin for All will allow solid waste collection routes to be optimized resulting in the removal of the equivalent of 5,000 vehicles off the road each year. The associated emissions reductions in ozone precursors (nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds) will benefit Houston in its ongoing efforts to achieve attainment status. The City will buy and maintain fewer trucks and residential bins, and will have fewer truck routes to develop, manage, and operate. The current system requires two entirely separate truck routes, crews and equipment (in addition to yard waste and heavy trash pick-up, which the new program might also be able to address).  The volume of recyclables in the dual and single-stream is fairly consistently less than a bin full.  The One Bin for All proposal lets that inefficient volume of material join the routine weekly stop at the residence to be more efficient, removing VMT and the related emissions.

Beyond these localized effects on air quality, One Bin for All will provide regional and global benefits because reclaimed material will replace virgin raw materials for manufacturing. Using reclaimed material as feedstock reduces or eliminates the energy used in extraction and manufacture of new products.

Why is the One Bin for All process different than a “dirty” materials recovery facility (MRF)?

This innovation is a highly adaptable series of technologies and process innovations. It is unique in that it will process unsorted curbside residential waste, treating all materials as recyclables or valuable assets.

Remove contamination: This innovation will remove 2-inch minus (very small) material early in the sorting process to minimize contamination.

New Design: The innovation has an optimized design which will allow it to be capable of mining all conventional recyclable commodities (paper, plastics, ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals and glass), while producing compost or carbon neutral fuel streams from the remaining low-value wet and dry organics.

Technology: The innovation will utilize only field tested and proven components (ballistic shredders creating 3-D chunks, optical scanners, density separaters, eddy currents, etc.), arranged in a unique order to maximize system productivity and guarantee uptime and high diversion rates without a thermal element.

Organics: The innovation will divert virtually all organics from landfill disposal, turning them into compost or methane (via anaerobic digesters).

Highly specialized sorting: The innovation will separate inbound residential waste into as many as twenty highly concentrated material streams. Separated food and green waste will be further processed with a highly productive, yet passive, biological process to produce large quantities of bio-methane, compost, which is virtually weed seed and pathogen free, and a concentrated, natural, nutrient rich fertilizer. The clean bio-methane will be used to produce electricity, bio-diesel or natural gas through licensed technologies. Lower value, dry organics (wood and textiles) could provide a consistent feedstock ideal for processing using catalytic conversion to drop-in fuels (gasoline and diesel).

Some responses from civic, environmental, waste and industry leaders:

  • Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City Mayor and philanthropist, has said, “Recycling has often been treated as an individual responsibility, like paying taxes. But Mayor Parker’s innovative One Bin for All idea turns that notion on its head. Achieving a 75% recycling recovery rate in Houston would represent a huge leap forward in urban sustainability practices.”
  • Brian Yeoman, City Director Houston, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, says, “The processing technology for Houston’s proposed One Bin for All system is an innovative new integration of improved existing technologies. However, such integration has not been implemented commercially in the United States and only partially in Europe. The City of Houston should continue to follow strict due diligence as it works toward implementation of this alternative to traditional recycling. Special attention should be put forth when drafting the performance requirements, fee structuring, revenue sharing and GHG emissions accounting. C40 believes that there is significant merit in the City of Houston pursuing further and deeper due diligence for this game-changing system. The benefits to the national and international waste industry could be tremendous.”
  • Elena Craft of Environmental Defense Fund has said: “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 Philanthropies grant, and I would like to see it succeed. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.”
  • Drew Sones, former director of the Bureau of Sanitation for the City of Los Angeles, has said new sorting technology is already working and that if he were director today, he would use Houston’s approach. “People don’t recycle everything or don’t recycle at all and don’t participate.”
  • Alan Del Paggio of CRI Catalyst Company, a Houston subsidiary of Shell, is now turning biomass into gasoline and diesel. “We’re well on our way to demonstrate to the world that this is not just wishful thinking but, in fact, this is a technical reality and an economic reality.”

Other groups supporting our work to move this forward and continue due diligence include: Rocky Mountain Institute; William McDonough + Partners; Houston-Galveston Area Council; Houston Advanced Research Center; University of Houston; Keep Houston Beautiful; Air Alliance Houston; the Greater Houston Partnership; and the Johnson Space Center/NASA.

Republic Services, a waste industry giant, has partnered with Bulk Handling Systems and the City of San Jose to operate a facility that takes all commingled commercial dry waste, using a process similar to what Houston is proposing. And Lancaster, CA, is also considering a one bin type solution. The Lancaster City Council approved a plan to move this idea forward. Overall, companies are very interested in working with the City to try to implement our idea or are interested in learning more. And as reported in Resource Recycling, other waste industry leaders such as Waste Management are neutral. Large recyclers such as the Newark Group would take material from a commingled source if it met their criteria.

Our vision is to obtain the highest possible diversion rates, greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, improved air quality, reduced operations costs, increased revenue and easiest to use program for residents. Let’s work together on what could be an innovation that helps all cities achieve their recycling rates and diversion goals.

Together we can accomplish anything if we work cooperatively, keep an open mind and support new ideas that are trying to do something better, if different. Change is hard, but together we can achieve great things.

That answered a lot of my questions about this project. I hope it answered yours. My thanks to Laura Spanjian for all the information.

UPDATE: Per his request, David Weinberg’s statement has been updated.

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?

Curbside composting

Way to go, Austin.

City officials are asking Austinites in 7,900 households in five parts of the city to separate their banana peels, egg shells, meat, chicken bones, milk cartons, leaves and any other organic material from their household trash and put the material into a new rolling garbage cart.

The one-year trial run will cost the city $485,000. That includes new green 96-gallon composting carts — the same size as the blue recycling bins that now dot the city. Residents also get indoor 2.4-gallon food scrap receptacles, the contents of which can be dumped into the green carts, and educational and promotional materials.

To combat the yuck factor, officials are distributing information about the reasons for composting, a natural process that breaks down organic materials into a nutrient-rich, soil-like material.

As usable as compost is, nearly half of the materials that end up in landfills can be composted. With a city goal to send no waste to landfills by 2040, compost collection is a natural next step, said Richard McHale, a manager at Austin Resource Recovery.

The city is not adding any equipment or staff for the program, McHale said.

Sanitation workers will pick up the compostable material weekly. But instead of hauling the stuff to the landfill, it will be taken to a private composting company just east of Texas 130.


A roughly yearlong restaurant composting pilot at 14 establishments wrapped up in the fall. At least 40 percent of landfill waste was diverted, and in some cases nearly 80 percent was, according to a presentation to the Zero Waste Advisory Commission in November by Resource Recovery waste diversion planner Woody Raine.

McHale said he hopes to expand the compost curbside program citywide within three years. He had no cost estimate for a citywide program. For now, city officials also won’t answer questions about how a citywide composting program would affect monthly utility bills.

“As we are able to determine participation and diversion amounts through the early phases of this initiative, we will be better able to determine any fiscal impacts the program will have when the program is fully implemented throughout the city,” Resource Recovery spokeswoman Lauren Hammond said. The department anticipates “that organics diverted from the landfill will help offset expenses related to curbside collection programs.”

The city of San Antonio has also done a pilot program for curbside compost collection, though I don’t know where that now stands. Austin has done some other things in recent years to encourage composting. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes. Houston does have separate collection for yard waste, but you have to use compostable bags that are not cheap and not terribly sturdy. Austin’s program is in the right direction, and it’s likely the way we’ll all have to go eventually. It will take awhile for people to get used to it, and I daresay some kind of fee structure that strongly incentivizes properly separating one’s trash will help spur that along. We compost at home, and really, it’s not that big a deal. I hope to see something like this in Houston in the near future.

Compost that Christmas tree

Let your Christmas tree do some good after you get rid of it.

When that Christmas tree comes down this year, take a moment to imagine its next incarnation: Chipped up and mixed into soil, it might soon secure new grasses along some South Texas highway or sustain vegetable starts in someone’s garden.

Adding weathered plant material back into the soil is becoming the norm for a growing number of people who are purchasing and using compost.

Two decades ago Houston offered only a couple places to buy it; now there are more than 60. Beyond buying, more people are learning how to make compost themselves from clipped grass and wilted vegetables.

“We are in a high growth mode and poised to steamroll,” said Michael Virga, executive director of the U.S. Compost Council. It plans to debut a campaign this spring with a message aimed at landscapers, green builders and the public about poor soil quality and the importance of recycling food.

“Compost Camp” is offered by the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling. Urban Harvest, the Houston gardening nonprofit, offers classes in compost and soil.


Composting has grown significantly in Texas for a different reason, and it has a lot to do with the Texas Department of Transportation. It has become, it believes, the single largest purchaser of compost in the country.

In 1985, landscape architect Barrie Cogburn tried to help TxDOT determine why its freshly graded slopes so frequently slumped away in the rain, taking with them the department’s expensive plantings. Cogburn noticed that new topsoil brought in by subcontractors was often little more than finely ground rock.

At a workshop she learned just how much organic material was ending up in Texas landfills. “They have too much, and we don’t have enough,” she thought. “There has to be a way to come together on this.”

Cogburn and Scott McCoy of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality teamed up in an experiment adding compost to the transportation department’s soil.

They also added dairy manure that was piling up in Bosque County, polluting water all the way downstream to Waco. The results were favorable: TxDOT embankments started staying in place. And the organic material retained water, so the department had to irrigate less. The practice is now widespread.

To ensure that your tree is part of the circle of life and not needlessly taking up space in a landfill, you have to take it to a recycling center, or if you have city of Houston trash service you can leave it by your curb on a tree waste day. You can find a list of recycling centers here, and the Chron has a handy map here. Recycling centers will take trees through January 7. This is a no-brainer, so make sure you take advantage.

Compost recycling in San Antonio

And now that I’ve mentioned compost recycling, here’s a look at how it’s working in San Antonio.

At New Earth’s composting site off Interstate 10 on the far East Side, it is easy to pick out the pile generated by the city’s pilot composting program. No other heap has bright bits of plastic strewn like confetti throughout its mix.

“It’s evil,” company President Clayton Leonard said of the shredded Whataburger cups and H-E-B bags. “We don’t want that.”

A portion of the waste coming to New Earth is from the city’s new curbside collection service for organic material, the latest endeavor to reuse more and throw out less. But it is running into some of the same problems the city has encountered with more conventional recyclables such as plastics and glass: Too many residents don’t understand how to properly sort their garbage or don’t want to bother.

“Our residents are slowly getting it,” city Solid Waste Department Director David W. McCary said.

The organic waste program is being tested at more than 25,000 households, concentrated in four sections of the city. This week, the city will have distributed the last of the wheeled green carts for the test program for the exclusive disposal of organic waste — anything from chicken bones to grass clippings.

The hope is that tons of organic material will be collected by the city and sent to New Earth for processing into salable compost. In turn, the city will spend less on dumping waste in the landfill.

The start of the composting program couldn’t be better timed since the winter holidays are a peak time for food waste.

But for it to succeed on a large scale, residents will have to learn to keep plastics and glass out of the green composting cart. Otherwise, Leonard said, New Earth can’t sell the finished compost and make it worth its while.

I’ll be very interested to see how they deal with that problem. Landfill space is getting more and more scarce and expensive, and you can’t easily create more of them because people tend to object. The sensible answer, which also happens to be the best environmental choice, is to reduce the need for landfill space, and composting is a huge component of that. That’s going to mean a little more inconvenience for people, who will have to get used to putting food waste into another bin, but it beats the alternatives.

The city’s goal is to divert 60 percent of garbage from landfills by 2020. In the past five years, San Antonio has increased its recycling rate from 10 percent to 25 percent.

But the national average is 34 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Austin claims a 38 percent recycling rate.


To reach the 60 percent diversion rate, McCary said, the plan is to gradually reduce the frequency of the garbage pickup and charge according to the volume of garbage. Those who compost and recycle would pay less than those who don’t — a pricing system already adopted by some major cities.

The landfills the city depends on are going to be full in 70 years, according to state estimates.

That’s exactly what they should be doing. Put the cost where it belongs, on those who insist on being wasteful. Sooner or later, something like this will come to Houston, too.

Growing the recycling economy

November 15 was National Recycling Day – you may recall it as the day that Houston announced a program to bring recycling to apartments – and on that day the BlueGreen Alliance put out a report on growing the recycling economy in the US. Looking at the report, I’d say Houston has taken a number of steps forward, but there are still areas of improvement beyond just expanding curbside recycling to more households. I have no idea what we do with construction and demolition debris, for instance, and there’s a lot more than can be done with compostible waste. The report has a number of case studies, so we can see what some other cities are doing. Check it out.


The city of Austin is looking for more ways to reduce the amount of solid waste that it puts in landfills.

Aiming to cut down the waste that Austinites send to landfills, the City of Austin is sponsoring free composting classes through the summer.

With roughly half the garbage sent to landfills made up of the banana peels, eggshells, apple cores and other organic materials that are prime for compost, a do-it-at-home soil fertilizer, city officials are trying to redirect the waste.

The classes are part of the city’s composting rebate program, which challenges Austinites to complete a free composting class, downsize to a green, 30-gallon trash cart and purchase a home composting system. Austin residents who do these three things are eligible for a rebate of 75 percent, up to $75, off the cost of their new home composting system.

In 2009, the City Council established a zero-waste plan. to reduce the amount trash going to landfills by 90 percent by 2040.

“We want to entice people to give composting a try, since it’s such an important component of reaching zero waste,” Solid Waste Services director Bob Gedert said. “Composting at home can drastically reduce the amount of trash your household produces, making the switch to the 30-gallon trash cart easy.”


Since the composting rebate program began in April 2010, 917 people have taken the City of Austin composting classes, and the city has issued 461 rebates, totaling $32,599.82, according to Gena McKinley, a planner with the city’s Solid Waste Services Department.

The city spent $16,047.14 last year on the program, including tent, table and chair rentals, instructor fees, and the printing and distribution of promotional material. It has spent $11,252.69 this year.

We have a composting system, and it’s really amazing how much less trash we throw out with it. More often than not, we’re putting out maybe one bag a week from the kitchen can. Plus, by not having all that rotting food in a container that gets opened frequently, the kitchen smells better. The downside is that we need to carry the stuff outside to the compost bin in the back yard, which can be an un-fun experience when the weather is nasty. We also tend to generate more compost than we can use, so we periodically have to stop adding to the pile and go back to using the trash can again. That’s where we are now, and I’m ready to go back. Having some way to deal with the excess of compost – some way for the city to collect it, perhaps – would be a big help.

Far as I can tell, the city of Houston doesn’t have a program like this as yet. The city is requiring compostable bags for yard waste, and one can certainly put kitchen scraps in them, but that’s an expensive way of doing it for those who don’t regularly generate yard waste. Beyond that, the city’s Solid Waste department has this Q&A about composting, and the Green Houston webpage will point you here for more info. Given that Houston keeps piling up the awards for being green, I hope we’ll copy this idea much as we’ve copied bike sharing.

Compostable bag update

The city has decided to not begin fining people just yet for not using the new biodegradable bags for yard waste. I agree that most people just need clear instructions and reasonably durable bags to do this, and I’m glad to see that behavior has already changed quite dramatically:

Before the program was implemented earlier this year, the city sent more than 1,200 tons of green waste a month to landfills. Now, it sends none and collects less than half of what it did in green waste, all of which is delivered to companies that recycle it and turn it into mulch or compost.

Marina Joseph, a spokeswoman for the solid waste department, said there has been no uptick in the amount of garbage the city has collected, an indication that people are not just putting their grass clippings in the garbage.

I wonder if there’s been an uptick in the number of mulching lawn mowers purchased, or if people have just been saying “The hell with it, I don’t need to rake after I mow”. Either way, it looks like the city has achieved its goal.

Biodegradable bag requirement postponed

Implementation of the new city ordinance requiring biodegradable bags for yard waste has been pushed back until April.

The new start date is April 5, which is after the last major fall of leaves for the season, said Harry Hayes, the city’s solid waste director.

By then, there should be more than enough of the bags available at stores to meet the anticipated demand, he said.

The city expects residents to use up to 25,000 bags a week during peak times for falling leaves, but only 11,000 bags now are reaching stores in a week.


City officials predict that the change will result in the diversion of 60,000 tons of organic material from local landfills at an annual savings of more than $1.5 million in landfill fees—nearly 10 percent of the city’s yearly budget for waste disposal.

The biodegradable bags are more expensive, prompting protests from some residents who compare the mandate to a tax increase.


Among the new policy’s critics, Kingwood resident Glenn Whitehead said it would make more sense for the city to provide reusable bins for yard trimmings.

He has started a petition drive to pressure the City Council into repealing the ordinance.

How much would that cost, and how would the city pay for it? Sorry, but I think that putting the cost of this on the people who produce the yard waste is the right idea. Incentives to create less waste are good things.

Yard waste

I hadn’t realized that an ordinance requiring bbiodegradable bags for yard waste had been passed, but I like it.

Under the ordinance, the city will not collect yard waste in plastic bags, and will fine residents up to $2,000 for putting leaves and clippings in garbage bins.

Plastic bags, made from petroleum, are sturdy and easy to use, but are widely considered an environmental nuisance that can linger for centuries in landfills.

The newly mandated bags begin to decompose within six weeks and leave no harmful residue behind.

As part of the new effort, the city will send bagged leaves and clippings to Living Earth Technology Co. to turn the waste into mulch.

The company will sell the mulch and give the city 10 cents for every bag sold.

City officials predict that the change will result in the diversion of 60,000 tons of organic material from local landfills at an annual savings of $2 million in fees, or 10 percent of the city’s yearly budget for waste disposal.

It makes sense to me that the cost for dealing with this kind of waste gets passed directly to those who generate it. Everybody creates garbage, but not everybody creates this kind of garbage. Whether they respond by generating less of it – by using a mulching lawn mower and/or starting a compost pile, for instance – or by using the biodegradable bags, either way the city can save money and landfill space. It’s a win all around. Implementation has been pushed back till February 1 to ensure an adequate supply of the accepted bags, so make sure you’re prepared. I hope this is a sign that the city will begin to take more steps to create incentives for people to recycle more and throw away less, because there’s a lot we can do to improve on that score.

Compost or else

Go, San Francisco!

Trash collectors in San Francisco will soon be doing more than just gathering garbage: They’ll be keeping an eye out for people who toss food scraps out with their rubbish.

San Francisco this week passed a mandatory composting law that is believed to be the strictest such ordinance in the nation. Residents will be required to have three color-coded trash bins, including one for recycling, one for trash and a new one for compost — everything from banana peels to coffee grounds.

The law makes San Francisco the leader yet again in environmentally friendly measures, following up on other green initiatives such as banning plastic bags at supermarkets.

Food scraps sent to a landfill decompose fast and turn into methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. Under the new system, collected scraps will be turned into compost that helps area farms and vineyards flourish. The city eventually wants to eliminate waste at landfills by 2020.

Awesome. Houston offers a separate compost pickup, but it’s voluntary and frankly I doubt more than one person out of ten is familiar with it. When the city decides to get serious about increasing recycling rates and cutting down on its landfill use, this is the kind of approach I want it to take. Speaking as someone who has a compost pile in his backyard, the marginal effort it takes to separate this kind of trash from the rest is miniscule. There’s no reason we couldn’t do this, and no reason I can think of that we shouldn’t. Via The American Scene.