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recycling

The long range plan for municipal waste

Something you probably missed (I know I did) from recent City Council action.

Last week Houston City Council voted to hire a company that will help local officials create and adopt a long-range waste and recycling plan. This wasn’t all over the news, but it is indeed a big deal—and a significant victory for Texas Campaign for the Environment that was years in the making. It could put Houston on a path to become the largest city in Texas working toward a Zero Waste future!

Most of the rest of the article recounts the fight over One Bin For All, followed by the fight over Mayor Turner’s original proposed recycling deal, which was eventually sent out for a rebid. True to what author Roseanne Barone writes, I couldn’t find any news about this, but you can see the Council agenda item in question here. I don’t know how long this will take to turn into a report for review, but given the way these things go it will either be breathtakingly ambitious but likely infeasible, or overly cautious and thus criticized by disappointed supporters. We’ll keep an eye out for it.

Council approves new recycling deal

Huzzah!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston residents are set to have their used glass and plastic bags picked up for recycling at curbside, but not until next year.

The 20-year, $37 million agreement City Council approved Wednesday is the product of two years of wrangling over recycling and positions Houston to pay less per ton to recycle.

Houstonians still have to wait another 14 months before putting bottles or bags in their green curbside bins, however, while the city’s chosen contractor builds a new processing facility.

To bridge the gap, the city plans to renegotiate its existing, costlier recycling agreement, which expires in April.

“From a financial point of view, it is a much better deal for the city of Houston,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, praising the deal with the Spanish firm FCC. “In terms of technology, it meets what our needs are and what we have asked for.”

[…]

Rosanne Barone, Houston program director for the advocacy group Texas Campaign for the Environment, lauded the city for “heading in the right direction” on recycling.

“This shows the mayor is committed to continuing moving forward to make the city of Houston more sustainable. We’re so happy glass is going to be back, and so happy and surprised and excited that plastic bags are now going to be included,” Barone said. “The next step is just to keep moving forward: To keep including more materials, to expand curbside pickup to apartments and businesses.”

See here and here for the background. CMs Knox, Stardig, and Kubosh were No votes, but CM Dave Martin, who had previously been a critic of the deal, voted Yes. I know a lot of people will be happy to have curbside pickup of glass back, though that will likely mean the end of one new business that emerged to fill that gap. Getting curbside pickup for plastic bags, which San Antonio has been doing since 2014, is a nice bonus. As Rosanne Barone says, let this be another step in the journey forward. Houstonia has more.

Recycling deal held up again

I’ll take Unexpected Effects of Hurricane Harvey for $200, Alex.

Chris Brown

Chris Brown

A 20-year, $37 million recycling deal for Houston is in limbo after City Controller Chris Brown said his office was not prepared to sign off on the proposal, citing concerns with the procurement process and the winning bidder’s proposed subcontractor.

The controller, the city’s elected financial watchdog, chiefly is responsible for certifying that sufficient funds are on hand to make the payments associated with items City Council is asked to approve each week.

Brown’s Monday afternoon memo to Mayor Sylvester Turner, however, noted “concerns pertaining to the transparency of the procurement process and the MWBE sub-contractor’s status as the defendant in several federal lawsuits.”

Specifically, he said several sets of documents from the initial procurement stages were kept only on paper and were destroyed when Hurricane Harvey flooded City Hall, leaving his office unable to compare documents from the two final rounds of bid evaluations.

Turner threw out the first round of final bids last summer amid questions from council about the process used to select Spanish firm FCC as the winning firm; FCC again was announced late last month as the winner of the second round of final bidding, prompting more questions from council.

Brown said his staff was able to review documents from the two final bidding rounds only after signing “unusual” non-disclosure agreements for which he said “no legal reasoning has been provided.”

FCC’s proposed subcontractor, Taylor Smith Consulting, he added, has been named as a defendant in four recent lawsuits, three under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“In the interest of full transparency, I thought it important to bring these concerns forward,” Brown wrote.

See here and here for the background. Who knew people still used paper documents? The Council vote had been scheduled for this week but will be pushed back after the holidays now. From the story it doesn’t sound like there were any actual problems with the bid, though the losing firms were griping about it, just that it was delayed. We’ll see if it gets any better a reception from Council this time around.

Curbside recycling will resume November 13

Hooray!

Houstonians stockpiling cardboard and aluminum cans, rejoice: the city will resume curbside recycling service next month.

Recycling service has been suspended since Aug. 30, when city waste crews dropped all efforts other than weekly trash pickup to focus on removing the thousands of piles of debris resulting from Hurricane Harvey.

Residents wondering whether their service will start the week of Nov. 13 – the “B” schedule – or Nov. 20 – the “A” schedule – can visit the Solid Waste Management Department’s website and click the “City Services Info Viewer” link.

[…]

Homeowners are reminded not to place any of Harvey debris in their 96-gallon green recycling bins, and also to keep glass out of the containers.

Pending the selection of a new recycling processer – an effort that was scrapped earlier this summer after council members questioned the procurement process – residents are stuck taking glass to any of the city’s six neighborhood drop-off sites or the Westpark recycling center.

See here for the background. Everything you need to know is here, so click over and remind yourself of the dos and don’ts, as well as the schedule. I’m just delighted to have a little piece of normality restored. Click2Houston has more.

Curbside recycling is coming back

Because most of the Harvey debris has been picked up. Win all around.

Houstonians who have been dragging their overflowing recycling bins to the curb every other week only to roll them back again untouched finally should have their cartons and cans hauled off early next month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday.

City crews and scores of private contractors have trucked more than 1 million cubic yards of Hurricane Harvey debris to area landfills, the mayor said, and are nearing completion on the first of three planned passes to pick up storm waste from thousands of flood victims’ lawns.

That soon should free up city recycling trucks to resume normal collection schedules after suspending the curbside service in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the widespread flooding it caused, Turner said.

“We’re hoping that we can start picking up the green bins in the month of November, hopefully the first week,” Turner said after the City Council meeting. “We’ll see how things are going, but based on the pace that things are proceeding, we’re thinking we can speed that process up. That’s the plan.”

Here’s the press release announcing this, which has details about the “second pass” of Harvey debris removal. Getting to this point represents a small amount of normalcy being restored. It’s not a big deal, but every little bit helps.

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.

Mayor introduces new recycling deal

There’s some stuff to like in this, and there are also questions to be answered.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The city would send all 65,000 tons of bottles, cans and boxes its citizens recycle each year to a new processing facility to be built in northeast Houston under a 20-year deal Mayor Sylvester Turner will present to City Council next month.

The contract with Spanish firm FCC Environmental, worth up to $57 million, would allow citizens to again put glass in their 96-gallon green bins, along with cardboard, newspaper, steel cans, aluminum and plastic.

Turner, faced with a poor commodities market and rising recycling costs upon entering office last year, negotiated away hard-to-process glass in hammering out a two-year stopgap deal with the city’s current contractor, Waste Management.

Council members raised enough concerns about the new contract’s length and cost and the speed at which it was being considered that Turner canceled a Tuesday committee hearing on the topic minutes before it was to begin and pulled it from Wednesday’s council agenda.

Turner stood firmly behind the deal at a Wednesday news conference, however, saying the proposal would not only return glass to the city’s recycling program but also would require FCC to share in the risk of a crash in the commodities market, ensuring the city never pays more to recycle than it would pay to throw the same materials in a landfill.

“When you take a look at what this offers, let me simply say: state-of-the-art technology, a brand-new facility, including glass, capping the floor of what the city would have to pay should the market turn down,” Turner said. “This is an excellent deal.”

Under the proposed deal, if the revenue generated by selling recycled materials is less than $87.05 per ton, the city would pay FCC the difference, up to a maximum of $25 per ton. If the materials sell for more than $87.05, the city would get a quarter of that excess revenue.

Under the current Waste Management contract, the city’s per-ton processing fee is $92, and there is no cap on the city’s costs. Houston’s per-ton costs have ranged between $20 and $53 per ton under that deal.

Prior to the commodities market crash, the city paid a $65-per-ton processing fee.

The FCC contract also would have the city borrow $2.4 million to add eight new trucks to its aging fleet and repay the loan at a 10 percent interest rate. That is significantly higher than what the city would pay if it borrowed the money itself.

[…]

Councilman Mike Laster, who was to chair the canceled committee hearing on the topic Tuesday, echoed his colleague [CM Jerry Davis].

“There’s still a lot of a lot of questions to be answered,” he said. “That gives me concern, and I look forward to doing all I can to get the best information.”

Texas Campaign for Environment’s Rosanne Barone said the contract’s processing fee and the interest rate on the $2.4 million loan are concerning. A broader worry, she said, is whether the contract leaves the city enough flexibility to capitalize on any improvements in its recycling policies in the future. Her group long has pushed the city to adopt a plan that would help it divert more waste from landfills.

“Using taxpayer money to take out a loan for $2.4 million on eight trucks is not a good use of taxpayers’ money at all,” she said. “But the more important message here is, is this a contract that is going to be functional in the long term?”

That processing fee, which was mentioned several paragraphs after the first section I quoted above and not in any of those paragraphs that discuss current and past processing fees, is $87 per ton. Which is a lot more than the previous deal we had with Waste Management, when they took glass and commodities prices were good, but a bit less than what we’re paying now. Like CM Laster, I’d like to know more before I make any evaluations of this. Having glass included in curbside pickup again is good, and having a price guarantee is good. I don’t quite understand the loan arrangement for buying more trucks, and the length of the contract could be a concern as well. Let’s learn more and see what if any options exist to make changes. The Press has more.

More options for glass recycling

From the inbox:

HoustonSeal

Through a new partnership with Strategic Materials Inc., North America’s largest glass recycler, the City of Houston is able to offer residents a more convenient way to recycle glass.

“Since the removal of glass from the City’s single stream recycling program earlier this year, we have been working to find ways for residents to conveniently continue to recycle glass,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “I want to thank Strategic Materials for stepping up to plate to provide a workable solution.”

Strategic Materials is working with industry partners and local communities to cover the cost of glass recycling drop off boxes at a total of ten locations throughout Houston with the goal of continuing to expand the program. The first two locations will open this weekend at:

  • Sharpstown Park – 6600 Harbor Town Drive, accessible during park hours
  • Salvation Army Family Store & Donation Center – 2208 Washington Ave, accessible 24 hours

“We are fortunate to be supported by the Mayor and the City in the pursuit to further support glass recycling,” said Strategic Materials, Inc. CEO Denis Suggs. “We hope to identify additional partners within the community and our customer base to grow the recycling locations in the upcoming weeks and months. Our innate desire to preserve our environment and keep our city clean brings us together in a meaningful way to support glass recycling in Houston.”

The City of Houston Solid Waste Management Department will send out notices as the other eight locations are added to this pilot program. The locations and progress of the program will also be available on the Strategic Materials company website. These new drop off locations sponsored by SMI and partners are in addition to the nine existing City of Houston neighborhood depositories where residents are able to recycle glass and other items.

Due to cost concerns, glass was removed from the City’s curbside recycling program last March. Information about this pilot project, curbside recycling and other topics is available at www.houstonsolidwaste.org.

Please remember to empty and rinse all glass containers, and remove all corks, caps and lids before dropping them off.

Very good news for everyone who still wants to recycle glass and doesn’t have other options for curbside pickup. I presume these dropoff locations will have separate bins for clear and colored glass, since it’s less expensive to process glass that is pre-separated. Basically, this gets us back to a position we were in before curbside glass recycling was available, but with the bigger green bins and more things (like cardboard) that can be put in them. We’d still like to get back to where we had been, with glass being allowed at curbside, but until then this at least makes it a little less inconvenient.

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.

Hauling Glass

In times of change, there are always opportunities to do well.

Where some saw rubbish, 8-year-old Pan Berlanga saw opportunity.

He launched his first business after the city of Houston and Waste Management in March negotiated a new recycling contract that cut glass from the curbside pickup program.

To recycle their glass, Houstonians now must go to recycling centers to drop off their used bottles. “People have to drive all over,” Pan said.

Or they could call Berlanga.

Pan and his brother-in-law, David Krohn, 28, now run a company they call Hauling Glass. They go door-to-door collecting glass bottles that the city’s new curbside recycling agreement leaves behind.

[…]

They now serve more than 160 households in three inner-Loop 610 ZIP codes – 77007, 77008 and 77009. Requests from residents in those Heights-area neighborhoods in the three ZIP codes and inquiries from outside those areas are flooding the business email account and phone line, they said.

Subscribers, who pay $10 a month, can either purchase a $15 bin or use their own.

Pan and Krohn also are learning logistics lessons from their fledgling business. Once every two weeks, they rev up a white 1977 Jeep Wagoneer and roll through neighborhoods to clients’ yards, staggered by ZIP code and day of the week.

They leave their loads in an industrial-size bin and warehouse just east of downtown. They’re working with major glass-recycling businesses to take the glass from there.

By picking up glass only, Krohn said they’re adding convenience for households and eliminating any extra processing those companies would have to do.

Here’s their website. Going by the requests they say they have received for this service, the 77006 ZIP code would be next in line when and if they expand. We’re signed up for their service, with the first pickup scheduled for this Thursday. Yeah, it would be nice if we all still had curbside recycling for glass, but sacrificing that (at least for now) was the sensible thing to do to keep the rest of the service. I used to haul my own glass to the now-defunct recycling dropoff location on Center Street, and to Westpark before that. I can live with this until things change again. In the meantime, kudos to Pan Berlanga for seeing things as they could be rather than how they are. If young Mr. Berlanga doesn’t already have a personal theme song, I have a suggestion for him:

Live long and prosper, sir.

Recycling officially re-upped

That new recycling agreement with Waste Management was on Council’s agenda yesterday. Here’s a reminder of what it was about.

Originally, Houston was to ink a four-year deal with Waste Management, paying a $95-per-ton processing fee, a nearly 50 percent price hike. [Mayor] Turner, hoping the market would rebound quickly and strengthen the city’s negotiating position, countered with a one-year deal at a higher processing fee, but Waste Management rejected that.

The deal facing a vote Wednesday is a two-year agreement that omits glass, which is more costly to process and comparatively less valuable to resell, and carries a $90-per-ton processing fee.

Compared to what other Texas cities pay, that figure – and even the $65-per-ton processing fee Houston paid under its expiring contract – is an outlier.

San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth all pay their recycling contractors about $35 per ton to process recycled material; in the latter two cities, Waste Management is the vendor.

The other Texas cities’ contracts are much longer than any of the deals Houston was considering, however, and took effect when the market was stronger.

Dallas’ deal, inked in 2007, expires at the end of the year. Fort Worth’s current agreement began in 2013 and expires in 2018. San Antonio began its contract in August 2014, as commodities entered their current slide; that deal runs through 2024.

Only Austin pays rates similar to Houston’s, under 20-year deals with two contractors that began in 2012. Balcones Resources, which gets 60 percent of Austin’s recyclables, collects $79 per ton to process the first 2,000 tons of material every month and $75 for every ton after that. Texas Disposal Systems, which gets the remaining material, charges $90.50 per ton.

“We were in a really tough spot since we were negotiating the contract at a time when commodity prices are at one of their lowest points, and other cities had the advantage of negotiating during more favorable commodity markets,” said Melanie Scruggs of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We’re also at a disadvantage because Waste Management has a monopoly and apparently there are no firms large enough that take residential recycling.”

[…]

Scruggs said a key difference between Houston and its peer cities is that Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have adopted waste diversion goals backed by investments in public education, recycling programs at apartment buildings or composting efforts. Those efforts have strengthened the cities’ recycling markets.

“It’s a signal the city is going to be providing, whether it’s ordinances or publicly funded incentives, things that would benefit their business,” Scruggs said. “Houston has no such environment for recycling as of yet, which is why we’ve been advocating that the city get a zero-waste goal and a plan.”

Turner on Tuesday said one of the options the city could consider at the expiration of the recycling contract in two years would be drafting a “recycling plan that is robust for Houston.”

In the end, the new contract was approved, with two No votes. The city and groups like TCE will get the word out to people about not putting glass in their bins. In a best-case scenario, people will bring glass to recycling centers and the city will make a few bucks from that to help offset these other costs. Most likely, the vast majority of that glass will wind up in trash bins, which will cost the city some money but not as much as it would for the glass to be in the recycling bins. A Zero Waste goal and plan would probably help with that – you can see the TCE make its case for that here – so I hope the city begins consideration of a “draft recycling plan” before this contract expires.

Recycling agreement reached

From the Mayor’s office:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that he has reached agreement with Waste Management (WM) on a proposed new contract that will allow the city to continue offering recycling services without any disruption. The proposal, expected to be presented to City Council for approval in two weeks, is a two-year contract with a $90 per ton processing fee and a guarantee to WM of at least 75 percent of the City’s recycling stream.

The only change in service that Houstonians will notice is the elimination of glass from the list of items that are acceptable for placement in the green curbside recycling bins. The exclusion of glass will lower processing costs for WM, as glass generally breaks during collection and transportation to the processing site. It is also unduly destructive to the processing equipment. Residents may continue to drop off glass for recycling at the City’s neighborhood depositories.

“I want to thank Waste Management for being willing to reconsider our arrangement and engage in shared sacrifice,” said Mayor Turner. “This agreement makes good economic sense for the city and for Waste Management. It reaffirms our commitment to recycling, doesn’t tie the City to a long-term contract, allows Waste Management to avoid the employee layoffs that would have likely resulted from cancellation of service in Houston and provides an opportunity for potential competitors to enter the market.”

The original negotiated agreement would have locked the city into a six-year contract with a cost of $95 per ton. Citing the need for a shorter contract in case market conditions improve, Mayor Turner countered with a two-year offer at $104 per ton. WM declined the mayor’s counter and submitted a three-year deal with costs of $7.6 million over two years and $11.5 million over three years. The new agreement saves the City more than $900 thousand per year and $2 million over the two year period.

“I want to applaud the mayor and staff for working hard to find creative solutions to reach a mutually-acceptable agreement,” said Waste Management TexOma Area Vice President Don Smith. “Removing glass from the recycle stream was a painful decision but allowed the City to keep the interests of the residents of the City of Houston front and center as they worked with us to find a solution to the City’s recycling needs.”

The City’s current contract with WM is set to expire on March 16, 2016, but WM has agreed to an extension until the new proposal is considered by City Council on March 23. City Council does not meet next week due to spring break.

Clearly, Mayor Turner and Waste Management got that idea for a two-year deal from me. It’s unfortunate that glass will no longer be accepted for curbside recycling – I get it, and I know that helped reduce the cost for the city – but given the closing of the Center Street recycling dropoff location, this is a pain for me. Looks like the North Main Repository is my new friend. I’ll take the trade if that’s what it took, but I hope some day we can get that restored. Kudos to all for getting this deal done with no disruption in service.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, with reactions from various people, and a statement from Melanie Scruggs of the Texas Campaign for the Environment:

“Over the past several weeks, thousands of Houstonians have emailed, called, written letters or testified in favor of continuing curbside recycling. Many residents also called on Waste Management through social media, urging them to agree to a short-term, affordable deal with the city. We are tremendously grateful that Houstonians’ voices have been heard so clearly!”

“It is unfortunate that a lack of recycling competition, low commodity prices and strained city finances have resulted in shortened public services. It is a temporary step backward that curbside recycling will no longer accept glass, as this will eliminate the energy savings of recycling glass and send more material to landfills. We advise the public to reduce and reuse glass containers, especially while they are to be excluded from the big, green bins, and to use neighborhood drop-offs to recycle glass.”

“Now that curbside recycling is no longer in peril, we call on Mayor Turner to lead Houston in the next step toward ‘zero waste’ by establishing a zero waste goal and pursuing a long-term Zero Waste plan that will create new recycling businesses, generate more recycling jobs, and divert more materials, including glass, from landfills over time.”

For what it’s worth, in the early days of the small-bin recycling, neither glass nor cardboard were accepted, and I think only #1 and #2 plastics were taken. We’ve come a long way even with this step back, is what I’m saying.

Now what for recycling?

Sure hope there’s a plan.

Houston’s curbside recycling program is in limbo after Mayor Sylvester Turner and City Council rejected a new contract with Waste Management on Wednesday, prompting concern among residents and environmental activists about a potential lapse in service.

Such a lapse would come about a year after the city finally expanded its curbside program to all homeowners. It also would occur amid an ongoing City Hall push to close a budget gap of more than $126 million by July 1, an effort likely to result in layoffs of city workers.

Turner emphasized that he is committed to recycling but said he was uncomfortable entering into an agreement he viewed as working against the cash-strapped city’s best interests.

The city’s current contract with Houston-based Waste Management to process recyclables expires March 16.

“We will continue with recycling. We just have to put forth a strategic plan where it can continue, where it’s cost-efficient, and we’ll try to do it in such a way that’s the least disruptive,” Turner said. “Instead of it being like twice a month, it may have to be once a month for right now, but we are certainly talking to a number of other players out here in the marketplace.”

Turner plans to announce a new recycling plan Monday. He declined to offer details on the options available to the city but said he is looking to other bidders.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Waste Management said the firm remains open to working with the city and is prepared to accept recyclable materials without a contract.

“Amidst the unfortunate rhetoric coming from the city are very workable solutions,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, the potential – and last-minute – solutions floated by the mayor and city officials can’t be characterized as constructive because they’re economically unworkable. This can’t be a one-sided solution. Losing money on a recycling contract with the city isn’t a solution in our view.”

Waste Management’s current noncontract recycling rate is $104 per ton, the same amount Turner proposed paying under a one-year deal.

See here for the background. I don’t know what Mayor Turner has in mind, but I can’t wait to hear it. If I were the one who had to come up with something, I might suggest a two-year deal – Waste Management proposed four years, the city said one year – with the hope that commodity prices (largely a factor of China and its economy) might have crept back up by then. The city doesn’t want to get locked into a long-term deal where they have to pay a high price, while Waste Management wants some price certainty. Maybe that would work, and maybe there are some other players out there eager to jump in on this market. I sure hope so. In the meantime, we may wind up paying the rack rate for awhile. Tune in Monday to see what the Mayor has up his sleeve.

Recycling contract impasse

Uh, oh.

The city of Houston’s curbside recycling program could be put on hold after negotiations between Waste Management and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office reached an apparent impasse over a new contract Tuesday.

Though Turner said he remains committed to recycling and his office said he will be “pursuing any and all available options” before the current contract expires March 16, the standoff could see Houstonians’ recyclables trucked to a landfill as early as next week.

The mayor acknowledged the breakdown Tuesday after Waste Management rejected Turner’s attempt to shorten a proposed four-year contract extension to one year.

“They control the market. It’s like a monopoly,” Turner said of the Houston-based Fortune 500 company that long has held the city’s recycling contract. “I support recycling. But asking people to accept a bad deal now and in the future is not good business, and I’m not prepared to allow the city to be hijacked by Waste Management or any one company. I want a good deal, but I also expect people to be good corporate citizens and not utilize their monopolistic status.”

[…]

Waste Management for years has been processing and reselling Houstonians’ recyclables, taking a $65-per-ton fee from those revenues and giving 70 percent of any money left over to the city. If the firm’s costs exceeded the fee the city paid, Waste Management swallowed the difference.

With plunging oil prices dragging commodities below $50 per ton, however, the firm has been renegotiating contracts. The deal before council, which was being negotiated before Turner took office, would see the city pay a processing fee of $95 per ton for at least four years. Turner’s office said he now agrees with council that such a term could trap the city in an unfavorable rate even after the market recovers.

Turner instead had sought to shorten the deal to one year in exchange for a higher, $104-per-ton fee.

Waste Management rejected that deal Tuesday, shortly before the mayor faced residents pleading with the council not to end the city’s recycling program only one year after it was expanded to give all homeowners the popular 96-gallon green bins.

|
See here for the background. The Press has an explanation for why we are in this predicament.

Melanie Scruggs, program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, says a major pratfall with Houston recycling is Waste Management’s monopoly over the city.

“Dallas owns its own landfill and they have a recycling facility at the landfill, so it’s a win-win for them,” says Scruggs. “Austin, in addition to a citywide recycling ordinance, has two different companies: one on the north side of [the Colorado River], and the other on the south side.”

“There’s not a competitive market for recycling in Houston. Waste Management is the only one in town and it puts the city in a difficult decision,” adds Scruggs. “The city of Houston is trying to put as much pressure on Waste Management for a shorter and cheaper contract because they want to save money.”

I don’t know what the solution to this is if Waste Management won’t go for a shorter-term deal, which I think the city is correct to pursue. Not recycling isn’t an option, unless you really want to see Houston get another large round of negative national publicity. The timing of this just couldn’t be worse, and we’re a week away from the current contract expiring. It’s a mess. For those of you who want to do something that might help, the Texas Campaign for the Environment has a customizable email message you can send to the city. Calling your Council members (district and At Large) is never a bad idea, either.

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.

It’s hard out here on a recycler, part 4

It was a bad year last year.

Recycling continues to hurt Waste Management’s bottom line, as low oil prices and low commodity prices have made that a challenging business for at least the past year.

The Houston company on Thursday reported a decline in revenue and earnings for its fourth quarter and full year in 2015, as it sheds some unprofitable recycling contracts and works to expand higher-margin business. Net income in the fourth quarter was $273 million, down from $590 million in 2014, and earnings per share dropped to 61 cents, from $1.29 a year earlier.

“The business is firing on all cylinders, save two areas: recycling and environmental services,” CEO David Steiner said during a call with investors.

[…]

Waste Management has been coping with tough times for residential recycling that spread across the industry. In many cases the company is no longer able to cover the costs of collecting and processing paper, cans and plastic bottles with the revenue it gets from selling them.

In paper, “if they can improve their processing costs per ton, you survive,” Hoffman said. But slower economic growth in China has contributed to lower prices for recycled metals, while the low price of oil makes virgin plastic cheaper to produce than using recycled plastic.

“It’s just very hard to cover your cost of processing,” Hoffman said.

Glass causes problems for waste companies by damaging sorting machines while it’s sold at very low prices, and consumer confusion over what to put in recycling bins makes recycling more expensive. Companies spend money removing non-recyclables from the stream, and contamination reduces the quality, and therefore price, of the recyclables they sell from collection.

Waste Management cut its recycling expenses by 15 percent from a year ago, Steiner said, and is working to renegotiate municipal contracts so that it doesn’t shoulder all of the costs of recycling when it’s operating at a loss. Already it has renegotiated 75 to 80 percent of its contracts, Steiner said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Waste Management of course also has a contract with Houston, one that has been pretty good to the city, allowing it to buy the equipment needed to bring curbside recycling everywhere at a faster-than-expected pace. City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to continue the single-stream recycling program today. I don’t know if the terms are the same as before or not, but I’m sure that will come up.

UPDATE: As predicted:

City Council this week will consider a four-year deal with Waste Management that will increase the fees the city pays the company to process its recyclables and will, for the first time, put Houston on the hook if the firm cannot cover its costs by reselling the recycled items.

If Houstonians keep rolling 5,400 tons of recycled material to the curb each month and current commodities prices hold, city officials project the cost to the city will be more than $3 million a year.

“Our contract expired in a bad market,” said Steve Francis, chief of staff in the Solid Waste Management Department. “If we were here last January at $107 a barrel (for oil), we’d have a significantly better contract in place. They’ve negotiated away their downside, which becomes a downside for us.”

It was nice while it lasted.

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.

Landfilling

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

It’s hard out here on a recycler, part 2

As if they didn’t have enough to deal with.

As low commodity prices have left recyclers short on cash to invest in technological upgrades, product manufacturers are coming out with new types of packaging that make business even tougher.

These products include lighter-weight plastic bottles, resealable pouch containers and other items that are popular with consumers and often better for the environment because they require less energy to produce and transport. Water bottles are made with less plastic now, for example, and thin plastic film is replacing heavier packaging.

But poor consumer education means that items like trash, grocery and dry cleaning bags end up in recyclers’ sorting facilities where they don’t belong and can jam machines.

“Flexible packaging has a very positive environmental footprint,” said Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy at the National Waste & Recycling Association. “Very hard to recycle, however, so there’s a trade-off there.”

Clear plastic pouches also have become popular. In addition to their convenient zip-close tops, they use less material. But in sorting facilities, machines often mistake the flattened pouches for paper and end up placing them in the wrong place. Thinner plastic bottles are now more easily flattened, too.

[…]

For recyclers, the challenge remains in keeping consumers educated about film and other materials that don’t belong in recycling bins.

“With more complexity in materials that consumers are purchasing, it makes it a lot harder for customers to know what they can recycle and what they can’t, so I think it makes it harder to ensure that we get the right materials in the recycling stream,” Susan Robinson, directors of government affairs for Waste Management. “It used to be a lot more simple.”

See here for the background. I don’t have anything to add here, just to note that it’s another item on the “educate the public about how to recycle” to do list.

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…)

San Antonio has begun curbside recycling of plastic bags

As of August 1, to be exact.

“We are starting with a new recycling processor that can accept the bags so that allows us to add it to the list of items we can accept,” [Solid Waste Management Department Public Relations Manager Tiffany] Edwards said, adding that the move gives San Antonians another option to recycle the bags, in addition to major grocers and retailers that will typically take the bags back and recycle them.

The new recycler is Recommunity Recycling, which has its corporate headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.

Edwards said residents should take one plastic bag and stuff all the other ones in it until it is about the size of a soccer ball before tossing it in the bin.

But not all plastic bags are accepted.

“We’re telling everybody no black bags, no trash bags,” Edwards said. “We want the translucent ones. We can take dry cleaning bags, sandwich bags and Zip Loc bags, as long as the zip is taken out. Tortilla and bread bags can be recycled, just clean them and get the bread crumbs out.”

And don’t forget to take your receipts out of you grocery bags either, she said.

Black bags aren’t accepted because the bags are a different grade of plastic than the translucent ones and because workers can’t see into the bags, they pose a hazard, Edwards said.

So why start accepting plastic bags now?

“Across the nation, a lot of processors can’t take them because they get stuck in the machinery,” Edwards said.

But the city’s new processor can.

Pretty cool. San Antonio has been on a journey that began in November last year. We first heard about their plan to do curbside recycling of plastic bags in March, but they still ultimately intend to implement a ban of some kind later. They have yet to determine what direction that ban will take, but it’s in the works. You can learn more at SA Recycles and the city’s Solid Waste Management page. Note that they take all forms of plastic plus styrofoam containers in their bins; you can’t put #6 plastic in the city of Houston’s bins, though you can drop of some styrofoam at the various service centers. We need to catch up here, Houston.

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.

It’s past time for a garbage fee

Yes, this.

For years, Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes has suggested the city implement a garbage fee to expand curbside recycling and pay for other initiatives. And for years, Mayor Annise Parker has demurred.

Now, with a looming budget deficit that could force widespread layoffs and cuts to services, the idea may see serious discussion at the council table for the first time.

Though Parker has not endorsed any particular path, she acknowledges a garbage fee is among the most important of the dozens of ideas officials are considering as they try to close a $150 million budget gap by next summer.

[…]

For Hayes’ part, he said he has “been like the North Star on this,” pushing roughly the same fee for the same reasons for six years, always reminding council members that Houston is one of the only major cities in the country, and the only one in Texas, without a garbage fee.

“I have consistently stated the same things to both mayors, who have both been huge recycling advocates, and the same thing to all the council members,” Hayes said. “If you’re asking me what to do and I’m your appointed and confirmed expert, here’s what we should do as a best practice in this particular city business.”

The fee Hayes has pitched – $3.76 a month or $45.12 per home, per year – would ensure recycling trucks and containers are replaced on time and without taking on too much debt, would deploy officers to better enforce rules against illegal dumping, and would add neighborhood depository sites.

Hayes said any broader proposal in line with what other Texas cities charge would be designed to generate enough revenue to cover his department’s $76 million budget, removing waste operations from the tax-supported general fund entirely. Such a fee in Houston, Hayes said, would be $15 to $20 a month per home, or $180 to $240 a year.

Using fees for 96-gallon bins, the type Houston distributes, Dallas charges residents about $21.92 a month, San Antonio $17.69 to $19.93, Fort Worth $22.75, Austin $33.50 and El Paso $16. Austin also levies a monthly $6.65 fee that funds other waste operations.

I’ve supported the idea of a garbage fee for some time now. The city would have been able to roll out the single-stream recycling bins a lot sooner with a dedicated fee, instead of having to wait till it had collected enough money from the program itself to finance the purchase of the equipment. How much better it would have been to deal with this back in one of the good budget years when the focus could have been on the improved service that a garbage fee would have meant instead of now when it’s all wrapped up in a deficit-reduction veneer.

The oddball argument was unconvincing to Councilman C.O. Bradford.

“When you look at business magazines, trade publications, economic forecasts, Houston is separate,” he said. “Houston is doing much better than those other cities because we do things differently. We don’t have to do it just because other cities are doing it.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said an informal survey of civic clubs in her district last year showed general support for the $3.76 monthly fee.

“People were willing to consider that,” she said. “For me, we have serious issues ahead and I think everything should be on the table for the purpose of talking about it.”

Dwight Boykins said he is supportive of the garbage fee concept, but is far more comfortable with the lower amount than leaving a $15 to $20 monthly fee in place indefinitely, particularly for low-income residents.

Councilmen Larry Green and Jerry Davis are against the idea, saying constituent surveys have found more opposed than in favor.

All due respect, but the “Houston exceptionalism” argument is hooey. Sometimes, when you’re the only one not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re the one that’s doing it wrong. I get where CMs Green and Davis are coming from, but one of the things that a garbage fee can help finance is better surveillance and enforcement of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem in District B. I hope the potential benefit of this can be made clear – perhaps Director Hayes could put together a short presentation detailing some of the dumping hotspots that would be first in line for enhanced attention with a garbage fee – before any vote is taken.

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.

Another expansion of single stream recycling

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker and Harry J. Hayes, Director of the Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD), are pleased to announce the addition of 62,000 to the City’s popular automated curbside recycling program. As part of the expansion, residents in neighborhoods throughout Houston will receive a new 96-gallon green automated cart similar to the black automated garbage cart they already have. The green carts will take paper, plastics, metals and glass out of the waste stream.

“Once again, we are happy to announce more homes are being added to the Automated Recycling Program”, said Mayor Parker. “This expansion moves us closer to our goal of having all City-serviced homes on the program by the end of 2015. This is a long overdue goal that was established by the Solid Waste Task Force that I chaired back in 2006 – 2007. Director Hayes and his team are to be commended for their hard work.”

“This 62,000 home expansion brings our total homes covered to over 273,000, which is more than 72% of all homes directly serviced by the department,” said Director Hayes. “We’re excited to increase opportunities for our residents to recycle, which is something they want to do.”

Cart delivery will begin this week, with the first collection occurring the week of June 23rd.

Recyclable items that can be placed in the containers include: newspapers, magazines, office paper, junk mail, cardboard, paperboard, paper bags, glass bottles and jars, aluminum cans, tin and steel cans and plastics 1 – 5 and 7.

For areas included in the expansion, visit the Solid Waste Management Department web site at www.houstonsolidwaste.org and go to the section titled “Automated Curbside Recycling Program Expanded to 62,000 Homes” and follow the links.

Here’s the link to that map. For my neck of the woods, this includes a sizable chunk of the Heights – the area bounded by 11th Street, Yale, North Shepherd, and Loop 601 – that had been previously left out, as well as Timbergrove and the area east of I-45 south of Moody Park. I know a lot of people who are going to look at this map and start doing the happy dance. If you’re inside the Loop, other than a few areas in the Third Ward, you will have single stream as of June 23 if you don’t already. Since we all agree that more single stream recycling means more households participating in curbside recycling, this is great news all around. Hopefully by next year, the remaining few places that still don’t have the big green bins will get them.

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.

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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.

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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.