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One Bin For All

EcoHub sues over OneBin failure

All right.

Continuing the saga that has unfolded at City Hall — in which City Council members have said a deal with one company “smelled,” and in which another company, EcoHub, claims Mayor Sylvester Turner snubbed him out of the whole process — EcoHub is now suing the city to find out what happened.

EcoHub had worked for years with former mayor Annise Parker’s administration to set up the One Bin for All Recycling paradigm, and CEO George Gitschel had said he secured millions of dollars in bond funding to build an $800 million facility that would recycle up to 95 percent of all our waste and repurpose it as fuel or other traditional recycling products. But when Turner took over, the deal with Gitschel fell apart — for largely unknown reasons. Turner has refused to provide an explanation beyond the fact that he is “not obligated” to continue with Parker’s vision. The city instead opened up a bidding process for more traditional single-stream recyclers in 2016.

The lawsuit, filed this week, is seeking clarity about how Turner made this decision. Gitschel had hired former KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino’s consulting firm to investigate, but in the lawsuit, Gitschel’s attorney says the city has not turned over documents, emails and phone calls that Dolcefino requested under the Texas Public Information Act. The lawsuit asks the court to compel the city to release the documents, and make sure officials are not hiding anything. Gitschel speculates that “improper influence by those who stand to financially benefit the most from the status quo” may have played in a role in why Turner cancelled the One Bin proposal and opened it up instead to traditional single-stream recyclers.

“What we’re hoping to uncover is at least emails between either Turner or folks in his administration and those with whom the city has been corresponding about bids on this contract, just to find out who the mayor’s been supporting and what’s going on at the Solid Waste Department,” said Gitschel’s attorney, Stewart Hoffer. “It just doesn’t make any sense why he would turn down a costless solution in favor of one that will cost a lot of money and has a greater environmental impact than what EcoHub had.”

I guess this is about the recycling contract that’s being rebid, which is whatever. What I’m wondering is how it is that EcoHub thought it had a deal with the city in the first place. As of the end of the Parker administration, there was nothing more than a progress report to show for the project. There was never a contract for City Council to approve. One Bin never came up when the current scaled back deal with Waste Managemend was ratified. One Bin For All was an idea, one that some people thought was great and others thought was ridiculous, it was never anything more than that. Maybe there’s more information to be uncovered in the deal that Mayor Turner tried to get approved. If there is, great, let’s hear it. But even if there is, I’m not sure what EcoHub will do with it.

Rebidding reycling

Do-over!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Pummeled by procurement concerns on a 20-year curbside recycling contract, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Friday he will seek a new round of proposals from the four final bidders.

Turner had met with small groups of City Council members Thursday to get a better sense of the concerns they repeatedly have raised since the proposal first was rolled out in late June, and announced his decision early Friday.

“This action is designed to put to rest the concerns raised by members of council, which must approve the contract before it takes effect,” Turner said. “Whatever the result, my only allegiance is to this city and I will always seek what is in its best interest.”

[…]

The four firms that will be invited to submit a new round of final bids are FCC Environmental, Republic Services, Waste Management and Independent Texas Recyclers.

The mayor did not specify how much time the firms would have to submit their proposals or how quickly they would be evaluated.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. I don’t know what went wrong in this process, but clearly something had gone off the rails. I’m glad to see this happen, but let’s do review how we got here and figure out how to do it better next time, OK?

Meanwhile, Gray Matters returns to the One Bin For All question with a few words from Roseanne Barone, the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The national Paper Recycling Coalition, Steel Recycling Institute, Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries and others knew that when used materials, food and pet waste are all combined together, it is also known as another name — “trash” — and so they wrote letters to then-Mayor Annise Parker advising her against this policy.

Thankfully, when Mayor Turner took office in 2016, he knew the best practice for Houston is to keep recyclable materials separate and clean so they can be sold to commodity markets and generate revenue for the City.

[…]

According to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, when we include composters, hard-plastics reclaimers, electronics processors, construction- and demolition-debris recyclers and manufacturers of goods made from recycled items, we have 21,550 recycling jobs in our region and an industrial output of $4.5 billion per year.

Who knew recycling was so vital for Houston’s economy? Additionally, throwing all discards into landfills supports a disposable, wasteful culture while doing real damage to our environment. There are 56 leaking landfills in the state of Texas, four in Harris County and one in Fort Bend County. Landfills are also more often than not located in low-income neighborhoods, so trashing valuable materials also perpetuates environmental injustice.

Barone, like her predecessor Melanie Scruggs, advocates for a zero waste policy. At the very least, bringing curbside recycling to apartments and businesses would make a difference. Let’s get the recycling deal done and go from there. The Press has more.

Recycling deal gets a rough reception at Council

Feisty.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council members blasted a proposed 20-year recycling deal Tuesday, questioning the $48 million price tag, the process by which the winning bidder was chosen and Turner administration officials’ reluctance to share information about the deal.

The proposal on the council’s Wednesday agenda would have Houston send all 65,000 tons of bottles, cans and boxes its citizens recycle annually to a new processing facility to be built in northeast Houston by Spanish firm FCC Environmental.

In the city’s request for recycling proposals, documents repeatedly envisioned the contract term as running 10 years, with up to two five-year extensions. FCC, however, was the sole vendor allowed to submit a proposal using a 15-year initial term, with one five-year option; competing vendors said they would have submitted 15-year bids if they had known their proposals would not be rejected.

Some council members also questioned why FCC’s prices had been evaluated favorably when its per-ton fee for processing the city’s recyclables was the second-highest figure among the four responsive bidders. Those concerns were heightened when one of the losing bidders, Dean Gorby of Independent Texas Recyclers, said he had proposed a $63-per-ton fee and had no idea why the city had represented his bid as $76 per ton to the council.

“It just doesn’t smell right,” Councilman Dave Martin told administration officials at a Tuesday committee hearing. “If I were you, I’d go back to square one.”

See here for the background, and either this story or that post for more details about the deal. I’ll be honest, I can’t quite figure it out myself. I don’t understand the price structure or the reason why this one company is being offered something other than a ten-year deal, and I’d like to know more about the other companies’ complaints. I very much want to get a new deal done and it will be nice to be able to put glass out with the green bins again, but I want to be sure it’s a good deal.

Meanwhile, Gray Matters revisits the retreat into oblivion of the One Bin For All proposal, with a link to and commentary on this recent Press story on the matter. Mayor Turner basically had no interest in One Bin – indeed, none of the 2015 Mayoral candidates expressed any commitment to it, and I asked them all about it during interviews. You can read all I’ve had to say on One Bin here. After all this time, I still don’t know what to make of it. It sounded cool and it could have been cool, but the amount of contradictory information I got from its supporters and detractors made my head spin. At this point, I’d just like to see us take recycling more seriously.

UPDATE: The vote has been tagged for a week.

On recycling glass

Not sure about this.

Considered only in terms of the city’s short-term budget and Waste Management’s profits, perhaps the decision to stop recycling glass makes sense. But it wasn’t popular at the symposium, which was hosted by UH’s Center for Sustainability and Resilience and the Houston Advanced Research Center.

There, speakers suggested that decision ignores bigger long-term issues — economic development, the environment and emerging technologies — that Houston and other cities should consider.

When waste management practices are at their best, recycling isn’t just an add-on to garbage collection. It can be key to meeting economic and environmental goals. So when our collection service says that recycling glass costs too much, we need to view that cost in the larger context.

Consider this: In the Houston-Galveston region, recycling has created approximately 12,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs. That amounts to $1.5 billion in employee income.

And there’s certainly room to create even more of those jobs. Lee Reisinger, former director of engineering at Proctor & Gamble and founder of the consulting firm ReiTech, suggested Houston could create its own locally developed tissue paper by blending recycled products, such as newsprint, with virgin wood pulp.

So why aren’t we creating those jobs? It’s because the current recycling system diverts the easiest and most profitable materials into a weakened commodities market — without considering the bigger picture.

A better option has already been proposed. In 2013, with support of a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, the city proposed the One Bin for All system. Everything, even contaminated paper, could be put in a single bin that’s wheeled to the curb for pickup. New and emerging technologies would make it possible sort all the materials for reuse. The city would leave the sorting and sales to its recycling partner, whose profits would offset the cost of new technology.

Under financial and technical concerns, support for the proposal faltered last year. But it shouldn’t have.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but One Bin For All is, politically speaking, pining for the fjords these days. It’s not that “support faltered” for it, it’s that Mayor Turner declared he had no interest in it at this time, and possibly ever. Making a case for One Bin starts with making a case to Mayor Turner to rethink that position. Given the challenging economic environment for recycling as well as the still-unproven nature of the One Bin concept, that’s a tough case to make. It’s even harder if you don’t start by addressing the political reality of the situation.

RIP, One Bin For All

It had a good run, but at the very least the timing was all wrong.

The One Bin For All program would let Houstonians throw all trash in the same bin, to be separated for recycling later. The hope was to push up Houston’s low recycling rate. But now the city could end up with no recycling at all.

The city council on Wednesday delayed a vote on a new contract with Waste Management, which would cost the city about $3 million more per year because commodity prices for recyclables are low.

Several council members are calling for suspending recycling until that changes.

The One Bin program was not mentioned at all in the discussion.

It turns out Mayor Sylvester Turner is not a fan.

“I’ve looked at and read the paper that’s been presented from what was done,” he said. “I’m not convinced that that is something I want to move forward with right now, if at any time, but it’s not a part of this conversation.”

See here for the last update. Mayor Turner had spoken in generalities about One Bin before now – I’d have to go back and re-listen to the interview I did with him for the 2015 election, but that’s how I remember him speaking about it then as well – so this is a rhetorical shift for him. It’s not exactly a policy shift in the sense that he had never committed to doing anything with One Bin, so think of it more as a door being closed.

As for the Council action, the Chron story from Wednesday before the meeting suggested some pushback on continuing the recycling contract with Waste Management, but nothing more than that.

Until now, Waste Management would resell the recyclables, deduct a $65-per-ton processing fee and give 70 percent of the remaining revenue to the city. If the firm’s costs exceeded the fee the city paid, Waste Management ate the difference. Those terms meant the city could make $25 per ton two years ago, when recyclables were bringing $100 per ton.

Now, with commodities prices at lows not seen since the 2009 recession, Waste Management has been dropping or renegotiating its contracts with Houston and many other cities.

If City Council approves the new deal, the city next month will begin paying a $95-per-ton processing fee. With commodities now earning $48 a ton, that means each ton of material recycled will cost Houston almost $50, at least in the near term.

That’s nearly double what it would cost to truck the recycled items to the landfill, where the tipping fee is $27 per ton.

And, with Mayor Sylvester Turner warning that layoffs will be needed to close a projected $126 million budget gap by July, some council members are inclined to quit recycling until the market improves.

“As much as we are for recycling, I’m also against cutting people that are actually doing city services,” said Councilman Michael Kubosh. “It’s going to hurt to lay people off and then to tell them we laid them off because, ‘Well, we want to recycle.’ We’ve got to think it through.”

Councilman Jerry Davis, whose District B is home to landfill facilities, disagreed, citing studies showing negative health outcomes for those near dump sites.

“If we stop recycling, we’re going to have more crap taken to landfills in District B,” Davis said. “With the rate we’re growing, we have to find a way to get rid of our waste in an efficient manner. What are we going to do when all our landfills are full? I understand commodities are down, but it’s a cycle. I don’t think we need to steer away from sustainability because the market is somewhat volatile.”

See here for the background. The single-stream recycling program has been pretty popular, so I kind of doubt it’s in any danger, but I’m not surprised that there was some grumbling about possibly having to pay for something we used to make money off of. And if the words “garbage fee” are forming on your lips, you may want to bite your tongue.

If you were concerned Mayor Sylvester Turner could consider pushing a new garbage fee to cover that cost, however, think again.

As Turner put it, when asked at today’s post-City Council meeting press conference:

“No. I have never contemplated a garbage fee. When it’s come up, I’ve said to members of my own staff I’m not going to advocate a garbage fee and I’m not going to support a garbage fee. So, absolutely not, no.”

I don’t agree with that – at the very least, I think we ought to keep the option open – but that doesn’t appear to be the case. We’ll see what Council does with this next week.

So what happened to One Bin for All?

KUHF asks the question.

It has been almost three years since the city won a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies for the One Bin For All concept, which would let Houstonians throw all their waste in one bin, to be separated for recycling later.

Former Mayor Annise Parker tried to start the project, but it never took off under her watch.

On Dec. 31, Parker’s last work day, the city released a 10-page progress report.

It only says that contract negotiations for a sorting facility are ongoing and that there is currently a proposal on the table that would be privately financed. The city is not saying who that contractor is.

“You’ve got to wonder whether this is a project that the city is really committed to – why they would wait until the very last minute to release that report,” said Melanie Scruggs, Houston program director of Texas Campaign for the Environment.

[…]

At this point at least, Mayor Sylvester Turner is not trying to move the project along.

“I am almost singly focused on two things,” Turner said when asked about One Bin. “And that’s infrastructure in relation to this pothole problem and then getting our arms around our financial challenges.”

See here for some background. A copy of the report is embedded in the story. I also asked Mayor Parker about this in my exit interview with her. She said at the time that there was a report that was about to come out on the status of One Bin; this is the first media mention of that report I’ve seen. She said in the interview that she believes the technology is there, but acknowledged that right now the economics are not. At this point I will be surprised if this goes anywhere. There’s no champion for it, and even if you agree that the technology is feasible now, the gloom in the recycling market will be a huge obstacle. Given all that, I expect the debate to eventually turn to topics that will be more amenable to folks like the TCE and other One Bin opponents, namely expanding recycling for apartments and maybe some form of dedicated composting. Note that I said “eventually” – if anything happens before 2017, maybe 2018, I’ll be surprised. The one thing that could change this is if a garbage fee gets put into the mix for dealing with those financial challenges. I wouldn’t expect that to happen, but it’s not out of the question. Beyond that, my guess is that this is the last we will hear of One Bin. Something like it may come up again under another name, but One Bin as we know it is likely no more.

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.

Mayoral candidate forum season gets underway

Gentlemen, start your oratorical engines for these upcoming Mayoral candidate forums.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The events, which will focus on arts and culture, economic development, and labor and community concerns, kick off a months-long cycle in which the candidates will appear before various interest groups, speaking to their specific concerns.

Wednesday’s arts forum at the Asia Society comes two days after the conclusion of this year’s legislative session in Austin and is expected to be the first time the candidates appear together since former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia entered the race.

The forum hosted by Houston Arts Alliance, Houston Museum District, Theater District Houston and Miller Outdoor Theatre begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be moderated by KTRK reporter Miya Shay.

[…]

Thursday’s forum hosted by SPARC Growth Houston, a coalition of economic development groups, will focus on the city budget and economic development. It begins at 6 p.m. at the University of Houston.

[…]

Then, on Saturday, the candidates are set to appear before area labor and community organizations for a 9 a.m. forum at Talento Bilingue.

I realize that these particular forums are tightly focused, subject-wise. Nonetheless, as a public service, I offer to the moderators of these forums and any and all future forums, the following questions that I think these candidates should be asked.

1. What is your opinion of the plan TxDOT has put forward to remake I-45 from Beltway 8 into downtown? Have you taken the opportunity to submit feedback to them via their website? The deadline for such feedback is today/was May 31.

2. During the legislative session there was a bill by Rep. Chris Paddie that would have provided a regulatory framework for “rideshare” services like Uber and Lyft to operate anywhere in Texas. In the bill’s initial form, these regulations would have superseded local rideshare ordinances, though after pushback from cities Rep. Paddie agreed to make some changes. What was your opinion of Rep. Paddie’s rideshare bill? Should the state of Texas be the one to regulate these services? Did you contact Rep. Paddie and/or your own Representative to express your opinion on this bill?

3. Texas Central Railway is currently going through the federal environmental review process to get clearance to build a privately-funded high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas. One of the things they are trying to decide is where to put the Houston terminal for this line. Their original plan was for it to be downtown, but they have encountered strong resistance from the neighborhoods that it might have to pass through (there are two possible routes), who object to elevated trains so close to their homes. An alternative now being discussed is for the station to be located at the Northwest Transit Center, though downtown and some other possibilities are still on the table. Where do you believe the Houston terminal for this high speed rail line, for which construction may begin as soon as 2017, should be? Have you gone to any of TCR’s public meetings, or provided feedback to them in any form?

4. As you know, the city received several proposals in response to its RFP for a “one bin for all” solution for solid waste management. These proposals, which are still being evaluated by the city, would require new technology and a substantial investment by a private company. The city has said that if the idea turns out to be infeasible, it will not pursue it. Mayor Parker has said that one way or another, this will be a task for the next Mayor to finish. What is your opinion of the “one bin for all” idea? Would your preference be for the city to pursue it or drop it?

I really really look forward to hearing some answers to these questions, whether next week or sometime soon thereafter.

It’s hard out here on a recycler

Whole lot of not so good in there.

When Waste Management bought the plant in 2010 and converted it to handle single-bin recycling, commodity prices were high, the city was on board and Houstonians were eager to recycle. As the company introduced single-bin recycling, residents became ever more vigilant about keeping bottles, cans and newspapers out of local landfills. But they also started throwing in nonrecyclables, which gum up machines and drive up costs.

It’s a national problem that Waste Management, based in Houston and one of the largest trash and recycling companies in the country, and its competitors have been grappling with the past few years. Recently it’s gotten worse. Back when commodity prices were peaking in 2011, companies could absorb higher costs of weeding out trash. But prices have dived since, and Waste Management is finding it can cost more to sort and process material than what it can get for selling it.

The sorting process costs $75 to $150 per ton, depending on how contaminated a load is, vice president of recycling operations Brent Bell said. The company then sells recycled material for just $80 per ton on average.

“Unless we can work out a way where recycling is profitable over the long term, there’s not going to be recycling,” CEO David Steiner told investors during a downbeat conference call last week, noting that commodity prices have sunk to new lows.

“It’s as low as it’s ever been, but we haven’t seen any indication of a bottom,” he said.

[…]

But there’s so much confusion among consumers over what can go in their bin. Grocery bags, for example, are plastic and have a recycling symbol, but can’t be recycled curbside. (Many local grocery stores collect them.)

Now that profits have plummeted, companies have more incentive to communicate what is recyclable.

“You have this whole perfect storm of things that has put the MRFs (materials recovery facilities) in a very difficult position,” said Patty Moore, CEO of consulting firm Moore Recycling.

Most facilities are set up to handle more paper than other materials, Moore said, but as reading physical newspapers declined, along with other uses of paper products, many of those facilities now operate less efficiently.

[…]

Then there is the decline in commodity prices.

Not only has China, a major destination for recycled materials, tightened its standards on the materials it accepts based on contamination, known as China’s Green Fence, but the nation is paying less for recyclables. Growth there and in other developing countries has been lower than projected back in 2011, weakening demand. They’re also producing more of their own recycled materials.

“If you look at the whole economics of that industry, it’s not very favorable,” Bell said.

Cheap oil is also a culprit, as newly made plastic is no longer more expensive than recycled plastic. For better or worse, it’s a lot easier to be green when oil is up over $100 a barrel.

Something as simple as putting recycling in a garbage bag throws off the process because the bag can’t be recycled. Depending on the volume workers are dealing with on the conveyer belt, they may rip it open, or just throw out the whole bag and its contents.

In March, Houston’s contamination rate was 17.4 percent.

“A fifth or a sixth of the material that’s going in there is really of no value, and not only is it of no value in terms of the end product, it tremendously increases the processing cost,” said Puneet Bhasin, who now runs Waste Management’s recycling business.

Contamination is why most in the industry see one-bin policies, like that Houston is pursuing, as a step in the wrong direction. Once paper gets wet or gets food on it, it has pretty much lost all value for recyclers.

That was the first thing I thought about as I read this. Whatever you may think about the One Bin proposal, and whatever the state of the technology may be, the current level of recycled commodity prices may mean One Bin is economically unfeasible, at least for now. That’s why I keep harping on where the Mayoral candidates stand on stuff like this. As the story notes, Houston signed a sweetheart deal for the collection of its recyclables when commodity prices were good. The expansion of the single stream program was largely financed by the revenues this deal generated. What happens when that deal expires? How committed are the candidates to recycling if we can’t get paid, or only get paid a minimal amount, for it? This is a non-trivial amount of money we’re talking about. It sure would be nice to hear the Mayoral hopefuls talk about this.

As far as the existential question goes, times may be bad for recyclers, but they will get better. There’s no going back – we don’t have the landfill space, and even if we did too many people wouldn’t accept it. But maybe we need to start thinking about recycling more as a utility, like trash collection, and treat it more like that. If that means adopting trash fees to support it, then so be it. Again, though, that’s a question for the Mayoral candidates. See what I mean?

Finally, as far as the contamination issue goes, the story spends a fair amount of time on that and mentions an outreach program that Waste Management is doing to educate people about what should and should not be put into recycling bins. It was the first I’ve heard of it, but I’m glad someone is doing this. The folks who oppose One Bin advocate for more of this kind of public outreach to help boost Houston’s recycling rate to at least the national average. Putting aside the challenge that low prices for recycled materials creates for that, what does that kind of program look like? What is the time frame for it? Is there a city whose example we could follow? And again, what are the next Mayor’s priorities for this? The One Bin path and the Not One Bin path are very different, and each his its own risks and rewards. I’m not going to stop harping on this until the candidates give me a reason to stop.

Still unclear where One Bin For All stands

Your guess is as good as mine.

The fate of the city’s cutting-edge “one bin” waste system that would feature a privately built, $100 million sorting facility is becoming increasingly uncertain, as sources familiar with the company proposals say there remain significant operational and financial concerns.

It’s no secret that the One Bin review has taken longer than expected. As a specially appointed advisory committee began meeting last summer, officials said they would send a recommendation to City Council by the end of the year. Last week, city spokeswoman Janice Evans said she could not assign “a specific time for a decision.”

With Mayor Annise Parker nearing the end of her final term, the timeline to select a bidder, garner approval from a skeptical City Council and begin construction on a system that has never been built on such a massive scale is becoming increasingly daunting.

“Certainly, the project won’t happen on my watch,” Parker said of getting the facility built. “We’ll either say ‘not quite there’ or here it is and here’s how you do it and let the next mayor carry it forward.”

It’s not clear precisely where the bidding process stands, but Evans said it has taken longer than expected only because the project is complicated.

Sources familiar with the proposals, who requested anonymity because of the bidding, said two proposals among the final five raise serious questions about how the technology would work and whether they could meet the city’s price requirement. The city has long pledged that One Bin would not cost more than current trash and recycling efforts. If the numbers didn’t add up to a cost-neutral figure for the city, other cities could use the One Bin template and see if they had the financing to make it work. The city snagged a coveted $1 million Bloomberg grant to come up with that blueprint in 2013, promising a revolutionary change to how the city handles the more than 600,000 tons of municipal waste that Houston residents generate each year, not including recycling.

[…]

But the two final bids raised significant unanswered questions about whether the plan could work, sources close to the process said.

The project likely would require a greater investment on the city’s end and possibly more stability in the recycling commodities market to match or beat the relatively cheap landfill fees in Houston.

Environmental critics who have pushed back on the proposal said the lapsed timeline is likely proof of what they have long argued: The technology simply isn’t there – and neither is the financing. Critics have encouraged the city to allow its still relatively young cursbide recycling program to mature.

“We’ve known the whole time that this was not a good idea,” said Melanie Scruggs, Houston program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment. “So we hope, and it would make sense, that the delay means the city is coming around to the same idea that one bin is not the solution.”

The city five proposals for One Bin last July, and at the time we were told that there would be a recommendation by the end of the year. That clearly ain’t gonna happen. I’ve done my best to keep an open mind about this, partly because it seems like a cool idea and partly because when people one respects disagree vehemently about something one doesn’t feel one is an expert on, it can be hard to decide who’s right. At this point, it’s getting hard to see how this happens unless one of those proposals really knocks our socks off (which if it had, we surely would have known by now) or the next Mayor is as gung ho for it as Mayor Parker has been. Of course, as of this writing I have no idea what any of the Mayoral candidates think about this, which seems a shame given that it’s potentially either a revolutionary new technology or a multi-million dollar boondoggle. While I sympathize with the drudgery of contacting so many campaigns to ask their position on every issue like this, I’m going to start to get cross with Chronicle reporters if they don’t do it. This is a big deal, and we need to know what they think about something other than potholes and pensions. I don’t expect a detailed white paper at this point of the campaign, but if a candidate hasn’t thought about this sort of thing enough by now to generate a coherent sound bite for a newsie, that tells me something about his qualifications for the office. Campos has more.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Quality of life and other issues

Preliminaries
Transportation
Public safety

A few quick hits on topics that didn’t fit elsewhere.

Making Houston affordable again

Remember when Houston was an inexpensive place to live? If you haven’t been here at least a decade – more like two decades, for some neighborhoods – you probably don’t. The transformation of so many parts of Houston, especially the Inner Loop, has been a big positive in many ways, but it’s come with a big price tag. Many longtime residents of many established and historic areas have been forced out, and the vast majority of housing construction today is high end. Houston’s longstanding reputation as an affordable place to live is no longer valid, and it’s having an effect. If nothing else, you have to wonder what will happen to some of these luxury apartment/condo complexes if the price of oil stays down around $50 a barrel. Mayors of course are limited in what they can do about this sort of thing, but there are some good policy ideas to encourage affordable housing development out there. I’d at least like to know that the Mayoral candidates consider this to be something worth thinking and talking about.

Historic preservation

In 2010, City Council passed a historic preservation ordinance, after a lot of work, debate, and contentiousness. Four years later, that ordinance is still a work in progress, with tweaks being made to help developers and homeowners better understand what it means and how to follow it. What sorts of “tweaks” would the Mayoral candidates like to see made to this ordinance? More broadly, and as a tangent to the point about how many established neighborhoods have been transformed by the recent real estate boom, what can – or should – be done to protect the interests of longtime residents in these neighborhoods and the houses that gave them their character in the first place? How do you balance their interests with those of developers?

One Bin For All

I trust everyone is familiar with the One Bin For All proposal. Last year, the city received numerous RFPs to build the kind of all-in-one plant that would revolutionize solid waste management and forever put to rest Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate. At this point, we don’t know where that stands, and while Mayor Parker and Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian have steadfastly advocated for this idea, they have also said that if it isn’t feasible then the city won’t pursue it. Many environmental groups – though not all – have been critical of the One Bin plan, preferring that the city do more to expand single-stream recycling. This is a big decision that Mayor Parker and City Council will eventually make. What direction do the Mayoral candidates want them to go? Who likes the One Bin idea, and who is skeptical of it? For those in the latter group, what would they do to increase recycling in Houston? If One Bin isn’t the answer, what steps can the city take beyond encouraging recycling – such as reducing the amount of food waste being sent to landfills – to do better and spend less on garbage?

State versus city

I discussed the threat of so-called “sanctuary cities” legislation in the Public Safety entry, but that is far from the only bill that seeks to limit or dictate what cities like Houston would be allowed to do by the Legislature. From payday lending to equal rights ordinances to plastic bags to who knows what else, the Lege – egged on by Governor Abbott – has declared war on local control. Are any of the Mayoral candidates – other than Rep. Sylvester Turner, who can safely be assumed to be dealing directly with these issues – even thinking about this stuff? Because if they wait until the voters are presumed to be tuning in, it will be too late. We need to be hearing from these guys now. If they don’t like some of the items on the Legislature’s to do list, they need to say so now. If they do like these things, then we need to hear them say that, too. Either way, now is not the time to be silent. If any of these bills pass, it will have a profound effect on Houston. The next Mayor of Houston might want to get out in front of that.

I could go on, but I think that will do for now. I realize this is a long campaign, and I realize the average voter is assumed to have the attention span of a gnat. I also realize that some of these candidates don’t have fully fleshed-out positions on everything yet, though let’s be honest here – most of the declared candidates – three of whom so far are repeat customers – have been running for Mayor for many years now. They’ve just made it official now that they can raise money. They’ve all got advisers and consultants and political directors and what have you out the wazoo. Let’s put some of that brainpower to the test. Anyone can be against potholes. I want to know what these guys are for, and it’s neither unfair nor too early to start asking where they stand, at least in general, on these issues. I hope you’ll join me on that, and will do the same for the issues that are important to you.

Saving money by throwing away less

Good strategy all around.

As a committee mulls an ambitious and controversial “one bin” project that could overhaul recycling and waste collection in Houston, the city’s traditional mode of getting rid of trash just got cheaper.

A renegotiated contract with the city’s primary waste hauler, approved by City Council late last month with little fanfare amid a deluge of end-of-year requests, is set to save the city about $600,000 annually, according to the city’s Solid Waste Management Department.

The $226 million contract to handle much of the city’s waste belongs to BFI Waste Services of Texas, whose parent company is industry giant Republic Services. The coveted contract underwent a massive rewrite in 2009 that did away with a painful “put or pay” clause that meant the city had to deliver a guaranteed amount of waste or cough up the monetary difference. Through the life of the contract, those changes will save the city an estimated $70 million.

The most recent savings, smaller but still significant as the city whittles away at a looming budget deficit, come courtesy of lowered tipping fees – the amount, per ton of trash, the city pays at the gate to a company to process its waste at transfer stations and landfills. Those fees can add up, and in some large urban cities run more than $50 per ton. In Houston, the city has now scaled the fees back by about $1.50 per ton, amounting to about $23.50 per ton. Set annual price increases will continue as scheduled, but the city has essentially reset the clock on its landfill fees to a few years ago.

“We’ve been very mindful and particular with how we spend the public dollar,”Solid Waste Management DirectorHarry Hayes told City Council members last year during a budget meeting.

The city is Republic’s biggest local customer, deputy solid waste director of operations Victor Ayres said , which offers some leverage in negotiating lower rates. The city has sent less trash to the landfill during the past five years. In fiscal year 2014, the city sent 628,978 tons to the landfill, 10,000 tons fewer than the year before and about 21,000 tons fewer than in 2012.

Can you imagine having to pay more for not providing enough garbage to the landfill? It’s so wrong on so many levels I can’t even wrap my mind around it. The city is going in the right direction here, and saving a few bucks in the process, but there’s a lot more to be done. Recycling rates, or diversion rates if you prefer, are still well below the national average. A big part of it is that too many people just don’t have a recycling mindset. I get ill at the sight of so many aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastic containers pitched into trash cans wherever I look. That’s part of the allure of the One Bin proposal, for which the RFPs are still being evaluated by the city. But whether we go that way or not – and please, I’m not looking to get bogged down in that debate right now – just having people think twice before they toss their beverage container or whatever into a waste bin would be nice. Throwing it away like that is wasteful in more ways than one.

Rest of the single stream bins to be distributed

All Houston homes will be covered.

All Houston residents who get city trash service will be able to roll their recyclables to the curb in 96-gallon green carts by the start of 2015, a milestone that has been years in the making as the city slowly expanded the program, frustrating neighborhoods that sought to be included.

City Council on Wednesday will be asked to approve the purchase of 95,000 recycling bins to cover the 90,000 homes, or about one-quarter of Houston residences, that are without any form of curbside recycling.

Another batch of bins now held in reserve will replace the 18-gallon recycling tubs still used by 5 percent of homes. These smaller bins do not take glass, while the larger cartons take all recyclables.

City officials said they expect the ease of using the wheeled carts will boost Houston’s dismal 6 percent recycling rate, which lags behind the national rate of about 34 percent.

“The beauty of this thing is that everybody will be able to participate in the recycle process,” said Councilman Dwight Boykins, who has been vocal in pushing for the recycling expansion in recent months.

The expanded service will likely go into effect in January, around the same time the city is expected to announce a possible contract for its ambitious “One Bin for All” proposal. That program would offer a wholesale change to Houston’s recycling system, allowing residents to mix waste and recyclables – and perhaps even food and yard waste – together in the same bin to be sorted automatically at a first-of-its-kind facility, built and operated by a private firm.

last expansion of the single stream program was in May. Some neighborhoods have been waiting since 2007 for the big green bins, so this is a momentous occasion. What happens after that depends on what happens with the One Bin program. As the story notes, the big green bins would be the One Bins, with the black bins now used for garbage being collected by the city, presumably to be recycled. I didn’t see a press release from the city for this or any announcement on the Solid Waste webpage, so I presume this means that if you have your garbage collected by the city and you don’t already have one of the big green bins, you should expect to receive one by January. You can find a link to service maps at Houston Politics or just take my word for that. Not surprisingly, One Bin opponents Zero Waste Houston put out a press release praising the expansion of single stream recycling and calling for One Bin to be abandoned. See beneath the fold for their press release. Who out there is still waiting for their big green bin?

(more…)

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.

[…]

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.

One Bin For All RFPs

Yesterday was a big day for the One Bin for All proposal.

Thursday [was] the deadline for private companies to submit bids to the city to build and run the facility. The bid guidelines call for a 75 percent diversion rate — that is, only 25 percent of solid waste should end up in landfills. The rest would be recycled, composted or converted into energy sources.

Currently, the city recycles 6 percent of its waste and diverts 19 percent overall, mostly lawn waste. Those numbers are well below state and national averages.

[…]

[Sustainability Director Laura] Spanjian pointed to a brand-new facility in Montgomery, Alabama, as proof that a one-bin system can work. Kyle Mowitz, the CEO of Infinitus Energy, which runs the Montgomery facility, said it has achieved 60 percent diversion since opening in April.

“I would’ve never done this project three years ago,” he said.“The technology wasn’t there.” Recent advances in optical technology and air density classification, Mowitz said, have “gone through the roof,” making mixed waste processing more practical.

“This is really the first facility in the country that’s doing what we’re doing.”

Mowitz, who said he expects to start turning a profit over the next year, added that the diversion rate should go up once the facility adds an anaerobic digestion system, in which microorganisms break down organic waste that might otherwise end up in landfills. The Houston plan also calls for anaerobic digestion. Critics argue that the technique may not work for unsorted municipal solid waste streams, which lack the uniformity that the microorganisms prefer.

“The problem is the critters are very finicky,” said Reid Lifset, a researcher at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “If you don’t give them the organic materials they want, it’s hard to run a successful process.”

Paper and steel industry groups have opposed One Bin for All. In a letter to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who supprts the plan, Gregory L. Crawford, executive director of the Steel Recycling Institute, which represents steel manufacturers, warned that the program “would produce unacceptable levels of contamination” in steel cans.

Mowitz disputed that argument, saying the Montgomery facility has had no problem selling recyclables “at a premium.”

The RFPs were issued in April. I sent a query to the Mayor’s office yesterday afternoon asking how many proposals were submitted, from whom, and if information about them were posted somewhere. I have not yet received a response, but when I do I will write about it.

As we know, the One Bin proposal is controversial, with several environmental organizations, banding together under the Zero Waste Houston banner, leading the opposition. Here’s their latest response to One Bin For All.

“No facility like this has ever achieved anything close to what our recycling goals are in Houston—and most have been outright disasters.” Melanie Scruggs with Texas Campaign for the Environment said. “City officials have set a 75% recycling goal for this proposal, but when we researched similar facilities, none have ever exceeded 30%. It’s been shown over and over that real, successful recycling will never be possible if the City tells residents to mix their garbage with recyclable materials in the same bin.”

The new report examines dozens of “one bin”-style waste facilities (known as “dirty material recovery facilities,” or dirty MRFs) that have failed in other cities or are only used as a last resort for the garbage stream. Their research contradicts claims made by proponents at the City who say the technology is now capable of recycling the vast majority of residential trash.

The report also cites massive air pollution problems with trash gasification or pyrolysis, which are incineration technologies the City of Houston is also considering under its proposal. Not a single trash gasification incinerator has operated successfully in the U.S., but overseas they have caused health-threatening pollution violations such as dioxin emissions.

“Bad proposals like incinerators and landfills have a way of uniting communities against a known threat to their health and safety, not to mention the safety of the workers in the facility who would be sorting through Houston’s trash.” Dr. Robert Bullard, dean at Texas Southern University and “Father of Environmental Justice” said. “Wherever the City attempts to build the ‘one bin’ incinerator, that neighborhood is going to fight it because no one wants all the City’s trash coming into one community, and nobody wants more air pollution.”

Opponents point out that such an incinerator would likely be built at an existing waste facility, all of which are in working-income communities that are already saddled with disproportionate pollution problems. And it wouldn’t be the first time: The report also shows that Houston has a well-documented history of siting incinerators and landfills in communities of color. In 1979, The City contracted with an experimental “mini-incinerator” technology that the industry promised would be “pollution-free.” Those mini-incinerators were shut down when such claims proved to be false.

“The City needs to quit trying to make bad ideas work and stick with the good ideas that other cities are implementing, such as real recycling and curbside composting.” Ms. Scruggs said. “We’re all very pleased with the expansions of the big, green bins, and we know Houston residents can and will recycle where they live, work and play, if given the opportunity. That’s the foundation of moving toward a more sustainable city.”

The Zero Waste report is here. It’s long and detailed, and largely boils down to the arguments that “mixed materials recovery facilities” are more about incineration than recycling, while separating organics from recyclables is much more effective at actually reducing waste. Melanie Scruggs of the Texas Campaign for the Environment wrote a guest post here recently discussing how Houston could improve its recycling rate with the big green bins that are now being used. Zero Waste also produced two letters, from coalitions of paper recyclers and steel recyclers that advocate for keeping organics away from these items. Finally, there’s a report by Dr. Bullard about the likely effect on minority neighborhoods, since they tend to be where waste facilities get located.

The city’s argument is that modern technology renders most of the objections moot. Zero Waste marshals a lot of evidence against that, and I’ll leave it to you to read their report and judge for yourself. Perhaps we’ll get a better feel for the city’s rebuttal when we see the proposals that they received.

UPDATE: Got a press release this afternoon saying the city got five proposals, and “will have a recommendation by the end of the year”. I will have more on this next week.

Melanie Scruggs: Ways Houston can increase its recycling rate

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

Houston has significantly improved its recycling rate by expanding single-stream recycling, or the “big, green bins.” While the smaller, 18-gallon green boxes only had a participation rate of 22%, the larger recycling bins are up to 62% recycling participation since the larger bins are a better, more convenient design and they accept more materials.

Following successful models of cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Toronto, Dallas and Austin, Houston can improve its recycling rate beyond our current 6% or next year’s expected 12% by implementing education programs and incentives.

ScruggsImage1_LargeGreenBin

It all starts with consistent programs and education

First and foremost, all homes serviced by the City’s waste services need to have the same, consistent recycling program. Right now, some neighborhoods have dual stream while others have single-stream; some neighborhoods recycle glass separately and others do not. Inconsistent recycling services unnecessarily complicates City-wide public education and messaging, makes it more difficult to teach communities how to recycle and can cause people to give up on recycling properly. Consistent, single-stream recycling where all recyclables go in one container separate from trash really does simplify the process.

Next, we need consistent promotion and education to explain what items go in the recycling bins. Recycling messages may take a plethora of forms: bus signs, billboards, bill inserts, social media, speaking in neighborhood meetings and even in schools. Speaking to elementary school students is one of the most effective recycling education methods, since kids are great at teaching their parents how to recycle. This is especially true in multi-lingual homes or in homes where parents have not recycled previously. Teaching youngsters responsible, environmentally conscious behaviors such as recycling will hopefully also encourage them to be sensitive to the environment throughout their lives and future careers.

ScruggsImage2_RecycleRight

Broadly speaking, recycling media and messaging should be tailored to reach populations with different interests and values. Environmentalists are going to be compelled when you say it is good for the environment, but that’s not everybody—maybe not even most people in Houston. The City may explain how recycling creates jobs, saves tax dollars in the long run and teaches resource conservation to connect with one group; explaining how recycling means less dumping on environmental justice communities connects to another. We live in an era where mass communication can be tailored to very specific audiences. Goodness knows I saw Mayor Annise Parker’s campaign ads all over my internet; surely the City can promote recycling that effectively.

At the individual or neighborhood level, stickers on recycling bins and door-to-door communication have been proven highly effective in cities like San Francisco, where they divert 80% of waste from landfills. Some cities have also appointed neighborhood “block leaders” where neighbors encourage each other to recycle properly and help distribute recycling instructions and media. Council member Bradford once suggested that the City create some kind of recycling competition between neighborhoods and invent rewards for neighborhoods that recycle the most.

Door-to-door visits may also target areas with low recycling participation or high contamination. City employees may use stickers and notes on recycling bins to inform people what they are doing right or what needs improvement. Door-to-door visitors are very effective since they can take some time to explain what items are recyclable in the City’s recycling program, what isn’t, why it is important and make sure residents understand the incentives in place.

Incentives help to improve recycling rates

All waste services have a cost, but not all communities have waste fees or a designated monthly charge to fund trash, compost and recycling services. Some cities pay for waste disposal from general funds and are able to achieve high recycling rates through consistence services and promotion. Toronto, for example, has no waste fee and boasts 49% diversion from landfills—about 3 times that of Houston. Part of Toronto’s success is likely due to their curbside food waste collection and a commitment to strong education programs. Monthly charge-based incentives do create powerful economic incentives to increase recycling, however, and have proven successful in other cities.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Unit-based or “SMaRT (Save Money and Reduce Trash)” pricing allows customers to pay less if they recycle more. While some communities may determine the amount through metering, where each load of trash set out at the curb is weighed, this is unnecessary and often unpopular. An easier solution is to offer different sized trash cans—24 gallon, 36 gallon, 64 gallon and 96 gallon—and to charge customers more for bigger cans, incentivizing waste reduction as well as recycling. In general unit-based pricing can reduce waste disposal by up to 50% and increase recycling by up to 40%. EPA estimates that PAYT policies in 2006—which covered only 25% of the US population—diverted about 6.5 million tons of waste which would have otherwise been thrown away. They estimated then that the policies reduced disposal by an average of 17%.

Mandatory curbside recycling and composting programs are controversial, but they are also very effective at incentivizing participation. Essentially these are ordinances which say that the City will not collect any waste if either recycling or composting are not also present, or if there is recycling or composting present in the waste. Customers are still free to self-haul their discards to a landfill and pay gate fees there, but City collection crews will not throw valuable commodities into the landfill themselves. Such policies are best implemented after all other incentives, education and programs have gone into effect to capture the last chunks of material after recycling, composting and other programs have become widely accepted.

Creating a City Wide Recycling Culture

Promoting recycling not just at home for homeowners, but also at apartments, condos, businesses, events and public spaces contributes to an overall recycling culture. If people don’t have recycling available until they move into a house, they are less accustomed to recycling and participation tends to be low. Consistent recycling programs at businesses, public spaces, tax-exempt institutions and schools also maximize potential job creation, revenue and conservation for the City.

Plenty of businesses take on voluntary recycling services or are interested in reducing waste in order to increase efficiencies and lower costs. Boeing and Mitsubishi for example have committed to Zero Waste to landfills and this is a growing trend in the business community. Voluntary efforts are important to lead the recycling culture, and recycling ordinances are also key to long term improvements in recycling outside of the City’s residential service area.

Note that some homeowner associations that have opted out of City waste services and in exchange for a refund or sponsorship program for private waste contracts. Houston could pass an ordinance requiring recycling in these opt-out neighborhoods or make it a condition of the grant that these neighborhoods have to provide single-stream recycling similar to what the City provides its customers.

Other aspects of a recycling culture include recruiting recycling-reliant industries, re-use centers, swap shops and salvage from bulky trash collection. Austin just started a promotional program to support local businesses that sell recycled products. Recycling is good for the environment and creates tens of thousands of jobs in our region; we should support manufacturers that use recycled content or re-use materials. Publicly committing to supporting the recycling industry will increase overall buy-in to recycling programs at home, work and play.

ScruggsImage4_PackagingWaste

In addition to recycling and compost, cities with a recycling culture are advocating for better product design. There is a nationally coordinated effort around container packaging, for instance, to eliminate non-recyclable packaging designs for certain products. Since our tax dollars pay for recycling and waste programs that dispose of millions of dollars’ worth of packaging every year, it makes sense that we should advocate for design that would lower the cost of recycling and disposal. This policy framework is called “extended producer responsibility” and aims to create economic incentives for producers to improve product design to achieve longer lifespans with greater durability and safety.

Long-term Zero Waste Goal

The big picture, long-term goal—90% diversion from landfills or higher—is often called Zero Waste. The Zero Waste International Alliance has developed the only peer-reviewed definition for the term:

Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

Note that this definition specifically excludes phased incineration technologies such as gasification, which has been proposed for the City of Houston’s “One bin for All” proposal. In practice, local and commercial Zero Waste standards vary with 90% diversion or higher being a common goal. Both Dallas and Austin have Zero Waste goals, and San Antonio has a short-term goal to divert 60% of its waste by 2020.

Recycling, composting, and waste reduction are all higher and better uses for these materials than incineration according to the EPA. Unlike unproven technologies like gasification of solid waste, Zero Waste relies on proven technologies such as separate recycling and organics collection. We hope that as soon as the City abandons its inkling toward gasifying our trash, we will see real leadership in establishing education programs and incentives to increase participation in the “big, green bins” recycling program, which is already showing success and fostering a culture of responsibility, unlike “One bin for all,” which fosters a culture of waste. Houston’s low recycling rate is a sign of opportunities we have yet to explore and provide to all residents. We believe the right services and education programs will yield successful results just like they have in other Cities, and set a positive example for other communities to follow.

Melanie Scruggs is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, a statewide, grassroots advocacy organization for waste and recycling issues. Melanie graduated from the Plan II Honors program at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012.

City issues One Bin RFPs

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker today announced the issuance of a Request for Proposals and creation of an advisory committee for the One Bin for All waste management and diversion project.

The City of Houston invites submittals from short-listed firms that participated in an earlier Request for Qualifications process.

“One Bin for All will revolutionize the way we handle trash, achieving high-volume recycling and waste diversion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, new jobs and lower operating costs,” said Mayor Parker. “We have reached another key milestone in this process and are eager to move forward as this technology has the potential to improve health and quality of life not only in Houston, but around the world.”

The City is seeking a public-private partnership that will significantly increase its overall waste diversion rate, create jobs, reduce expenses to the City, reduce emissions compared to current processes, and protect and educate local communities.

“The City’s One Bin concept is a pioneering program that strives to make recycling easier for citizens, which will make us more successful as well as reduce emissions and improve our environment,” said Rice University Professor Jim Blackburn. “Technology and innovation will have important roles in the changes that we as a society must make to recycle and reuse efficiently.”

“Mayor Parker and Houston are once again leading, and working smart and diligently to find state-of-the-art solutions to improve the quality of life of Houstonians,” said Houston Director for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Brian Yeoman. “Developing new tools that can be replicated to increase recycling and waste diversion, will help many cities who grapple with this same problem.”

The RFQ can be downloaded at http://purchasing.houstontx.gov/Bid_Display.aspx?id=T24905

Submissions are due July 12, 2014. A pre-proposal conference will be held on April 29, 2014.

In addition to the issuance of the RFP, Mayor Parker also announced the creation of a One Bin for All Advisory Committee. The panel will provide expertise to the City regarding financing, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental justice and outreach and education issues as the City moves forward to significantly increase its waste diversion. Advisory Committee members include:

Jim Blackburn – Partner, Blackburn & Carter; and Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University
Winifred Hamilton, Ph.D. – Director of Environmental Health, Baylor College of Medicine
Barry L. Lefer, Ph.D. – Associate Department Chair and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Houston
Jim Lester, Ph.D. – President, HARC
Cheryl Mergo – Sustainable Development Program Manager, H-GAC
Laurie Petersen – Sustainability Champion, NASA JSC
Lalita Sen, Ph.D. – Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy, Texas Southern University
Adrian Shelly, III – Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston
Alan Stein – President & CEO, A&E Interests
Jeff Taylor – Vice President, Freese and Nichols, Inc.

“Houston is advancing creative solutions and embracing new technologies to continue to improve our air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in areas such as waste operations,” said Barry Lefer, Associate Department Chair and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston. “For example, using anaerobic digestion to convert organics, including food, to fuel, is an important breakthrough concept for large scale waste diversion and methane reduction.”

Last year, Houston’s One Bin for All idea was one of the five winners in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire American cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life – and that ultimately can be shared with other cities to improve the well-being of the nation. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ mission is to ensure better, longer lives for the greatest number of people. Houston was selected as a Mayors Challenge winner out of a pool of over 300 applicant cities, based on four criteria: vision, ability to implement, potential for impact, and potential for replication. One Bin for All was also the first place winner of the Mayors Challenge Fan Favorite Selection.

For more information please visit www.houstontx.gov/onebinforall.

The RFQs were issued last June, and I noted recently that the city was expected to issue the RFPs this month. It remains the case that some environmental groups strongly oppose this approach – see Zero Waste Houston, put together by a coalition of enviro groups, for their argument. I reached out to Melanie Scruggs with the Texas Campaign for the Environment for a statement, and this is what she sent me:

Groups and individuals who oppose the One Bin for All proposal include the National Sierra Club CEO Michael Brune, Annie Leonard, Founder of the Story of Stuff Project, the local Sierra Club Houston Regional Group, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), the San Jacinto River Coalition, Houston Peace and Justice Center, Public Citizen TX, Texas Campaign for the Environment and thousands of Houstonians who have written letters or emailed City Council since last March. We all believe that commingling trash and recycling will lower real recycling rates and that bringing incineration technologies like gasification or pyrolysis to Houston or any other city will threaten public health, compete with recycling and waste reduction, and put the City of Houston and its taxpayers at financial risk.

While the City claims the public-private partnership will reduce costs to the City, the proposal clearly calls for tax incentives including 380 Agreements and tax-exempt financing that will lock the City into a decades-long public subsidy for technologies that have a horrendous track record of cost failures, emission violations and failures to produce energy. While the One Bin plant may produce a little over 100 jobs, expanding recycling to the entire City could produce thousands and thousands more if curbside composting is implemented. Real recycling and composting will do more to reduce greenhouse gases than incineration ever could, because incineration of recyclable materials means that raw materials will have to be extracted again. And yes, gasification and pyrolysis are incineration technologies according to the EPA, despite what the City’s public relations people want to think.

The announcement of the “Advisory Committee” has been made for PR purposes and raises more questions than hopes. What exactly is the Advisory Committee supposed to produce? Why were they not invited to participate during the RFQ process wherein the City heard from respondents about the technologies under consideration? None of the local groups who have voiced concerns about a One-Bin program been asked to serve on the Advisory Committee, and no one from the neighborhoods where this facility will be built has been invited either. It is also ineffective to evaluate “One Bin for All” in isolation while groups have proposed alternatives, including keeping recycling and trash separate, implementing organics recycling, creating new incentives and investing in education programs to boost participation.

The participation rates with recycling have been increasing since the City has started to switch to the “big, green bins” and we believe the “One Bin for All” will waste the progress Houston is currently making in real recycling. Without any investment in public education whatsoever, the participation rates have still increased from 22% to 62% with the big, green recycling bins simply because they are a better design. Far from “innovation,” what City Hall is proposing is a proven failure that will set real progress on waste reduction, recycling and sustainability back for years to come. Houston needs a long-term plan to eliminate waste at its source and provide universal recycling where we live, work and play, the way other cities in Texas and across the country are now doing. City Hall needs to abandon this terrible proposal that would turn our trash in to air pollution, harming the environment, our health and the recycling economy.

So there you have it. I will be very interested to see what kind of responses the RFP gets. What are your thoughts on this?

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this.

The Trib writes about One Bin For All

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.

The next wave of curbside recycling

From last week, some good news for those of who that still don’t have the 96-gallon wheeled recycling bins.

Houston will roll out its biweekly, automated curbside recycling service to 70,000 additional residences throughout the city just in time for Thanksgiving, the Department of Solid Waste Management announced [last] Friday.

The expansion will bring service to a total 210,000 households – more than half of the residences in the department’s service area, spokeswoman Sandra Jackson said. The automated curbside service will be extended to 60,000 more residences in the spring.

“Residents have let us know loud and clear through their participation and support that this is a program they want,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement. “This is a significant step in a larger plan to expand recycling citywide.”

The program began in 2009 with 10,000 households.

Letters concerning the program will be mailed to new participating residences. Wheeled 96-gallon containers will be delivered beginning the week of Oct. 28. Collection will begin the week of Nov. 25.

The press release from the city Solid Waste Department, along with a list of included neighborhoods, is here. Council approved this expansion earlier in the month. This expansion and another one for an additional 60,000 houses in the spring were built into the Mayor’s budget, thus bringing us closer to the goal of having all houses receive recycling service without imposing a garbage fee. That approach is certainly open to debate – I’d have been willing to pay a monthly fee, or to support a pay-as-you-throw fee designed to minimize landfill-bound waste – but it’s what we’ve got. Still in the works is the One Bin For All plan, for which RFQs were issued in June. The deadline for those submissions was August 22, and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen or heard anything on it since then. I’ll need to follow up on that. In any event, the march towards more curbside recycling continues. Check and see if your neighborhood is on the list if it wasn’t already receiving the service.

Next wave of recycling bins approved

From last week:

City Council on Wednesday OK’d funding to complete efforts to double the number of 96-gallon green recycling bins parked at city curbs, but it is unclear which 70,000 homes will be next to receive the service.

[…]

The delay in naming which neighborhoods will be part of the second expansion comes from ongoing discussions with council members and coordinating routes so neighborhood collection days do not change, [Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry] Hayes said.

Once the new bins are wheeled out, the percentage of Houston homes with a 96-gallon bin will have increased from 28 to 55 percent, to about 210,000 houses. Add in those residents using 18-gallon tubs and an estimated 63 percent of the city will be able to recycle without driving to a drop-off center.

“My goal is to have curbside recycling at every household in the city,” [Mayor Annise] Parker said.

The first wave of recycling expansion was announced in May, when the budget was released. It brought the 96-gallon wheely bins to 35,000 houses, and broke the heart of some of my neighbors because they weren’t on the list yet. Maybe this announcement will make them happy.

An audit of this year’s first expansion shows about three-quarters of the homes with the new bins actually roll them to the curb, which diverts waste from landfills and creates savings Hayes said he plans to use for expanding the service.

“One group of Houstonians is paying for the next group,” he said. “We encourage folks to call 311 and make that request to be added to the wait list.”

I’d like to know more about who has the bins but isn’t using them, and why. I can’t think of a single good reason why anyone would not use them, and frankly the fact that some 25% of those who have them don’t use them is the best argument I can think of for some kind of “pay as you throw” garbage fee. Our unacceptably low rate of recycling is a major reason the city has been pursuing the One Bin For All solution, and while I get that I feel like we need to make a stronger push to get people to use what we’ve got already. Let’s start by finding out why some people don’t use it, and see what we can do to change that.

City seeks One Bin For All RFQs

Calling all vendors.

The city of Houston took a step forward on its “One Bin for All” project this week.

The project would allow residents to discard trash and recyclables in one bin to be sorted at a new $100 million facility, which would be built and run by a private firm.

On June 12, the city issued a request for qualification, looking for firms to provide residential municipal solid waste and recyclables processing, and named Deputy Director Don Pagel as the new program manager for the project.

The city will hold a pre-proposal conference on June 27, and RFQ submissions are due Aug. 22. Click here to download the RFQ.

See here for my previous blogging on One Bin For All, and here for the city’s press release. Of interest is this Houston Politics post about the budget hearing for the Solid Waste department.

City Council this Wednesday will vote on whether to spend $2.5 million to purchase 11,408 trash carts and 34,560 recycling carts for the Solid Waste Management Department, the latter a part of the city’s planned expansion of curbside single-stream recycling service.

Solid Waste Department spokeswoman Sandra Jackson said the department plans to release the list of neighborhoods where the recycling carts will go after City Council approves the purchase.

Today, 26 percent of Houston homes have 18-gallon green tubs that take newspapers, magazines, cans, cardboard and plastic, and 28 percent have single-stream, which are larger, have wheels, and which accept glass in addition to those other items. About 46 percent of homes have no curbside recycling.

The $7.8 million expansion plan, which Mayor Annise Parker touted last month in announcing her proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, would expand single-stream service to about 55 percent of the city’s households (adding 35,000 in July and 70,000 in October), making some type of curbside recycling available to about 63 percent of homes, department Director Harry Hayes said.

As a result, Hayes said he expects the citywide recycling rate to increase from roughly 19 percent now to about 23 percent after the expansion. (By comparison, he said, the goal of waste diverted from landfills as part of the still-in-development One Bin For All proposal would be 55 percent in the first year and, eventually, 75 percent).

The black trash cans on the agenda tomorrow would replace broken and lost ones, as well as serve new customers and give some customers extra bins — for a price. Hayes expects to bring in $1.3 million in the coming fiscal year from selling residents extra trash cans, and another $480,000 from selling bins to businesses.

Those were just two details gleaned from Hayes’ budget presentation this morning, the latest in City Council’s two-week budget hearing process. (See below for details from the Houston Public Library budget presentation.)

Hayes proposes a $70.6 million budget, up from $69.4 million this year. In addition to expanding curbside recycling (Hayes said he hopes to expand single-stream service citywide in the next 2.5 fiscal years), his budget also calls for expanding or remodeling some neighborhood recycling centers in early 2014.

Landfill fees are projected at $13.5 million; as recently as fiscal year 2008, they were $23.6 million.

That was from last week. I was beginning to wonder what had happened with that, since surely Council had voted on it by now, but I wasn’t seeing any news about it. However, on Friday I got this press release from the city that made the official announcement about that first expansion of automated curbside recycling to 35,000 more households. Click over to see if your neighborhood is getting it in July if you haven’t gotten it already, or if you have to wait till October.

On a side note, the debate about how effective the One Bin solution will be continues. City Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian and Texas Campaign for the Environment Houston program director Tyson Sowell each contributed an op-ed to Waste & Recycling News with their perspective. They have been going back and forth on this since the One Bin plan was announced, including here, so you should read what they have to say there to keep up with the discussion.

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?

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.

Houston wins $1 million runnerup Bloomberg prize

From the Mayor’s office:

Mayor Annise Parker today announced that Houston’s One Bin for All idea is one of the five winners in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire American cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life – and that ultimately can be shared with other cities to improve the well-being of the nation. Houston was selected as a Mayors Challenge winner out of a pool of over 300 applicant cities, based on four criteria: vision, ability to implement, potential for impact, and potential for replication.  Houston will receive a $1 million innovation prize to help implement its One Bin for All idea. As the winner of the Mayors Challenge Fan Favorite Selection, Houston will receive a $50K in-kind grant from IBM to support the implementation of its One Bin For Allidea as well as featured coverage and promotion from The Huffington Post, including a monthly front page column for a year and an interview with Arianna Huffington on Huff Post Live. The City will also receive a sculpture created by world-renowned designer Olafur Eliasson to commemorate each of the Mayors Challenge winners.

“I am thrilled that Houston has been selected as a Mayors Challenge winner,” said Mayor Parker. “One Bin for All is a first-of-its kind innovation that will revolutionize the way we handle trash, achieving high-volume recycling and waste diversion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and lower operating costs.  I am anxious to begin implementation because I know this cutting-edge technology has the potential to improve health and quality of life not only in Houston, but around the world.”

“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,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, philanthropist and Mayor of New York City. “Achieving a 75% recycling recovery rate in Houston would represent a huge leap forward in urban sustainability practices.”

One Bin for All utilizes game-changing technology to separate trash from recyclables, allowing residents to discard all materials in one bin.  The anticipated end result is a dramatic increase in the amount of waste diverted from our landfills.  Implementation will be achieved through a public/private partnership.

Here’s the background, and here’s the Chron story. Providence, RI was the big winner:

Rhode Island’s capital city has won a $5 million contest created by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg with a high-tech plan to overcome a language skills problem known as the word gap that puts low-income children at a profound disadvantage in the classroom.

Providence was one of 305 cities that pitched an idea to Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a contest designed to spur innovation in America’s cities. Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif., were selected for $1 million runner-up prizes. The winners are set to be announced Wednesday in New York.

Providence’s winning proposal will equip low-income children with recording devices that count the words and conversations they are exposed to. Combined with coaching lessons for parents,, the plan is designed to help poor children overcome a language skills deficit that develops before they even start kindergarten.

A landmark 1995 study found that children in families receiving welfare hear less than one-third as many words per hour as their more affluent peers and will reach age four having heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional families. Research shows the word deficit is tied to later academic performance and employment opportunities.

“Education is the path out of poverty; I know, because I have followed it,” Providence Mayor Angel Taveras told The Associated Press. “We need to make sure that path is available to more kids. The first teacher in a child’s life is a child’s parent. We can do something to help them.”

That’s pretty cool, too. Congrats to Providence, Houston, and the other runners-up. I look forward to seeing these proposals get turned into reality.

Vote for Houston in the Mayor’s Challenge final

From the HuffPo:

Vote below for your favorite idea among the 20 Mayors Challenge finalists! Voting is open from February 20 through March 6.

The Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge is a competition designed to inspire America’s mayors to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life. The Huffington Post and Bloomberg Philanthropies have partnered to give readers an opportunity to select their favorite idea among the 20 finalists. Click the grid here to learn more about the 20 finalists or scroll down to watch videos from each city.

Click the link above to cast your vote. If you need a reminder of what this is about, see here and here for previous blogging, and here for Mayor Parker’s pitch for Houston:

One Bin for All is a revolutionary idea for residents to discard all materials in one bin, treating “trash” as valuable assets, dramatically increasing recycling using game changing technologies.

Recycling, admittedly, is difficult. Though I am an avid recycler, I can be stumped by aluminum foil or a wet paper towel or a plastic straw. Not surprisingly, so are millions of citizens, and it is estimated that cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash.

[…]

This first-of-its-kind innovation uses technology in a way that has never been done before. Allowing technology and new process systems to sort household “trash” and derive an initial 55 percent diversion rate, and upwards of 75 percent with composting, anaerobic digestion and catalytic conversion (biomass-to-fuel) is more efficient and effective. The technologies (shredders, sensors, density separators and optical scanners) have been used previously in the waste, mining, or refining industries, but will be combined in a new process which will yield a much higher diversion rate. This system has the potential for cities across the globe to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make a significant contribution to improved air quality, provide an easy-to-use program for residents, save money and increase revenues.

Our innovation will:

  • Provide every residence with curbside One Bin for All services;
  • Decrease the volume of waste sent to landfills and increase recycling rates;
  • Improve air quality by eliminating truck routes and reducing methane emissions from landfills; and
  • Manage costs associated with waste collection and disposal and recycling, saving cities money.

By building the first total material resource recovery facility in the US, Houston has the opportunity to improve the health and quality of life of its citizens, divert more municipal solid waste than any other large City in the nation, save money, change the way citizens think about materials, reduce extraction of raw materials and influence other cities to embrace this transformation.

There’s a video over there as well, so click to see it and then click here to vote. You have until March 6 to cast your vote. Hair Balls has more.