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Solid Waste Management Department

Curbside recycling will resume November 13


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.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

The Chron circles back to where they started this endorsement season.

The spotlight of public attention has focused on the billion dollar pension bond referendum, Proposition A, whose passage is absolutely critical to Houston’s financial future. But if you’re a Houston voter, you’ll also find on your ballot four bond issues that will pay for a long list of projects and equipment essential to our city government.

Proposition B would authorize the city to borrow $159 million for the police and fire departments. The Houston Police Department needs the money for everything from improvements to its training academy to pouring new pavement at HPD facilities. The Houston Fire Department would use its funds to pay for renovating and expanding some of its fire stations. And both departments need to tap the bond money to update their aging fleets of cars, trucks and ambulances.

Proposition C would authorize $104 million in bonds for park improvements, including upgrades to 26 of the 375 parks around the city, making sure they are usable, safe and fun. To take one example: Baseball and soccer are popular with both young and older athletes in many neighborhoods, but many city ball fields are equipped with old wooden light poles. The bond issue would allow the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to replace them with new metal poles, energy efficient lights and underground wiring. The upgrade would also include a remote control feature that would reduce personnel costs.

Proposition D would raise $109 million for a variety of public health and solid waste disposal expenses. Much of this money would go to renovating and rehabilitating old multi-service centers, which are used as everything from health clinics to election polling places. Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, the people who pick up our garbage, would spend their share of this money on a “to do” list that includes a new disposal facility and a storm water mitigation project.

Proposition E would go a long way toward upgrading library services throughout the city with a $123 million bond issue, directly benefiting at least 24 of the city’s 42 libraries. Not everyone can afford a home computer, yet in this digital age access to a computer is crucial to success. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many of Houston’s neighborhood libraries are in disrepair. The bond proceeds will replace the roofs and repair the exteriors of ten libraries and will rebuild four neighborhood libraries.

Maybe you’re wondering why these propositions don’t include money for flood control after Hurricane Harvey. It’s a logical question with an equally logical answer. In order to appear on the ballot in November, the plans for these bond issues were presented to city council in early August, weeks before the storm hit.

Beyond that, flood control in the Houston area has mainly been the responsibility of the county and federal governments. When voters ask why more hasn’t been done to mitigate flooding, those are questions that need to be addressed mainly to the county judge and commissioners as well as our elected representatives in Washington.

The Chron had endorsed these bond issues in their first such editorial of the cycle, but that one was primarily about the pension bonds, and only mentioned the others in passing. You read what these are about, it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose them, but a lot of people don’t know much about them, and of course some people will always oppose stuff like this. As you know, I believe the bonds will pass, but we’re all just guessing. We’ll know soon enough.

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.

Recycling deal gets a rough reception at Council


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.

Still asking for Zika help

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Following reports of the first local mosquito-borne Zika infections in the U.S., Mayor Sylvester Turner is once again calling on the state of Texas and federal government to provide financial assistance to help fight it.

“There are already 14 confirmed cases of Zika virus being transmitted locally in Florida,” said Mayor Turner. “I believe it is just a matter of time before Texas is in a similar situation. Cities are the front line of defense in this battle, and we could use some financial assistance from the state and federal governments. It makes no sense to wait until there is an outbreak here.”

Since February, the City of Houston Solid Waste Department has been conducting weekend sweeps of illegal dump sites that can serve as mosquito breeding grounds. To date, 3,433 tons of debris and 29,130 tires have been hauled away at an annual cost of $3.6 million. With some additional state or federal funding, the City could purchase new equipment to increase collection frequency beyond the weekends, develop and distribute educational materials informing residents of proper and free disposal options and establish three additional heavy trash drop-off locations.

Last week, the Houston Health Department was awarded $1.5 million by the Centers for Disease Control to use for surveillance, testing and prevention. The City is already in discussion with Harris County on the best way to maximize the use of these dollars.

Houston has documented 12 travel-associated cases of Zika virus infection since the start of the outbreak in Latin America earlier this year. Harris County has confirmed another 12 cases – 11 are travel related and one is an infant with microcephaly born to a mother who contracted the virus while traveling outside the United State. There are a total of 80 confirmed Zika cases in Texas. At this time, there is no evidence the virus has infected mosquito populations in the state.

In addition to the neighborhood trash sweeps, the City has public service announcements at the airports, on public transit, in city water bills and on local TV. The health department is going door-to-door to distribute insect repellent in underserved neighborhoods, and the City’s regional public health laboratory is supporting local hospitals and clinics with Zika infection testing.

Residents are encouraged to follow the three Ds of mosquito defense: drain, dress, DEET! Drain standing water on your property and keep hedges trimmed. Wear long pants and long sleeves, keep windows and screens repaired and use air conditioning. When outside, spray exposed skin with mosquito repellant containing DEET, reapply as necessary and use netting to protect babies in strollers or car seats.

This is not the first time Mayor Turner has asked for this help. I doubt the Republican-controlled Congress is any more interested in taking action now than it was then, but it can’t hurt to ask. Better to keep expectations low, though.

More options for glass recycling

From the inbox:


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

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.

Trash subsidy will not be trashed

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After weighing the budgetary impact and obtaining input from City Council, Mayor Sylvester Turner has decided not to pursue elimination of subsidies to homeowners associations that opt out of City trash collection services.

Under the program, which began in the 1970s, the City pays a monthly $6 per household subsidy to homeowners associations that contract for more expensive trash collection service from private haulers. Elimination of the subsidy was predicted to save the City $3.5 million annually, but only if the homeowners groups stuck with their private haulers.

“Many of the neighborhood associations have indicated they will request City collection if the subsidy is abandoned,” said Mayor Turner. “As a result, we are now looking at increased costs as opposed to the savings that had originally been anticipated. Therefore, it no longer makes sense to pursue this at this time. We can balance the budget without it.”

Elimination of the trash subsidy was one of several options put forth to help close a projected $160 million budget shortfall in Fiscal Year 2017, which begins July 1. City Council will consider the budget on May 25, a full month earlier than normal. Mayor Turner has requested early approval to send a strong message to the credit rating agencies about the attention the City’s fiscal challenges are getting from City Hall.

See here for the background. I was rooting for this to be killed, but if the numbers say it will cost more than it will save, then so be it. That doesn’t mean we can’t plan to phase it out over the next few years, however. I’d like to see that on the table going forward. The Chron story has more.

Kill that trash subsidy

Works for me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner, working to close a $160 million budget deficit, has proposed scrapping payments that scores of Houston neighborhoods served by private trash haulers receive to help offset the cost of their waste contracts.

The idea when the program started in the 1970s was that residents should not have to pay property taxes for city trash services they were not receiving – particularly because they were already paying for waste pickup in their homeowner association dues. The city also came out ahead because the $6 monthly per-house subsidy was cheaper than the cost of the city serving each home itself, now estimated at $18 per home per month.

In scraping together a balanced budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, however, Turner felt the program was expendable. In many cases, the subsidies go to residents who have chosen to pay for more extensive services than those the city provides, such as having the trash picked up more frequently than once a week, or having workers walk up a resident’s driveway to retrieve the trash rather than the homeowner rolling a bin to the curb.

Cutting these “sponsorship” payments to the 48,000 homes participating would save the city $3.5 million.

“When I drilled down in every department and every line item and I saw that line item sticking out, my question was, ‘Is this one that people can give up without hurting them and the core services, things that are essential to the city?'” Turner said. “I decided this was something the city at this particular point in time was not in a position to continue to sponsor.”

City Council will begin hearings on Turner’s proposed budget on Monday, leading up to a final vote that could come as early as May 25.


“If they end up saying it’s that big of a difference, that they will give up their contracts and will turn to the city, then yeah, OK, more than likely I’ll remove it,” Turner said. “I’m not trying to make their situation bad, I’m simply trying to balance a budget that’s $160 million short, and I’ve asked people to engage in shared sacrifice.”

The mayor also suggested, wearing a slight grin, that reporters examine the subdivisions now receiving trash subsidies.

The three City Council districts home to 83 percent of the city’s sponsorship agreements, records show, also are the three districts with the highest median household incomes in the city: District G on the west side, District E in Kingwood and Clear Lake, and District C, which covers much of the western half of the Inner Loop.

[CM Dave] Martin acknowledged that he and many of his neighbors receiving private trash service in District E can cover a $6-per-month increase in their civic association dues.

“If you’re used to getting your trash picked up twice a week and you’re used to backdoor service, most people are probably going to say, ‘Keep my six bucks,'” Martin said. “They’re mostly the people that have the means to pay an extra $6 a month.”

Yes indeed. And now is the time for the city to say to these folks that we can no longer afford to subsidize their premium trash collection service. We all have to make sacrifices in these lean times, don’t you know. The irony is that if enough people decide that the sacrifice they’d prefer to make is the higher level of service, in return for saving a few bucks a month, then it won’t be worth the city’s effort to make them make that sacrifice. I suspect that the vast majority of them will take the original deal, of keeping the service but paying full price for it. If nothing else, it will allow those who are so inclined to piss and moan about how hard they have it now. Surely that’s worth the six bucks a month to them. KUHF has more.

Storm debris collection begins in Houston neighborhoods

From the inbox:


Beginning Saturday, April 23, 2016 the City of Houston Solid Waste Management Department and private contractors working on the City’s behalf will begin storm debris collection in the single-family neighborhoods impacted by Monday’s flooding. This includes the following areas.

  • Acres Homes
  • Alabonson
  • Chateau Forest
  • Kempwood/Bingle, Hollister
  • Larchmont
  • Link Meadow
  • Linkwood
  • Meyerland
  • Spring Branch, Blalock, Gessner, Hemstead
  • Westbury

The City asks residents to help by separating everything into the following six categories.

  • Normal Household Trash – Normal household trash and bagged debris of any kind will not be picked up with debris as part of this program. You should continue to follow your normal garbage schedule.
  • Vegetative Debris – leaves (do not put in bags), logs, plants, tree branches
  • Construction & Demolition Debris – building materials, carpet, drywall, furniture, lumber, mattresses, and plumbing
  • Appliances & White Goods – air conditioners, dishwashers, freezers, refrigerators, stoves, washers, dryers and water heaters
  • Electronics – computers, radios, stereos, televisions, other devices with a cord
  • Household Hazardous Waste – cleaning supplies, batteries, lawn chemical, oils, oil-based paints, stains and pesticides

Residents should not place debris piles near other objects like fire hydrants and mailboxes or under power lines or low hanging branches that would interfere with the collection equipment.

The City is also continuing to help with debris removal from inside 17 privately-owned apartment complexes in the Greenspoint area.

And in other news:

It took until the wee hours of the morning, but all remaining flood evacuees who had been sheltering at M.O. Campbell Center have now been relocated into hotel rooms and the shelter has been closed. Well over 150 families are being provided hotel rooms for up to three weeks at a cost of about $150,000. The City is using the Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund to cover the costs.

“I promised we would get everyone out of the shelters by the weekend and we have kept that promise,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “These families have been sleeping on cots in a high school gymnasium since last Monday. They have lost everything and have nowhere else to go. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in this time of need. That means providing a warm bed on which to lay their heads, showers and privacy.”

Catholic Charities and the American Red Cross are working to coordinate meals for the hotel guests. Yellow Cab and METRO assisted with the massive transportation effort from the shelter to the hotels. Everyone was placed in hotels in the immediate Greenspoint area so their children are in close proximity to their schools. The hotel accommodations are meant to be temporary housing until apartment repairs are finished or alternative units have been identified.

Approximately 1800 apartment units suffered minimal to major flood damage in the Greenspoint area. The apartment owners have 400 workers on site making repairs. In addition, the City has stepped in to help with debris removal so it does not pile up and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Debris collection begins today in the single-family areas impacted by the floods. 20 contract crews are working seven days a week with the City’s solid waste staff in nine neighborhoods. They are unable to get to the Kingwood/Forest Cove areas because flood waters remain high.

Donations for the relief effort are being accepted through the Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund at The donations will stay in our community and be used to help storm victims and relief organizations in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties

The Mayor’s office is also partnering with Airbnb, which has asked its hosts in Houston to share for free any extra space they have. The temporary accommodations are available to displaced residents and volunteers here helping with the relief effort. The offer is good from now until May 14. Listings of the available housing can be found at

Glad to hear it. The Chron story on this is here, and as always, don’t read the comments if you want to maintain any faith in humanity. The Rockets made a $500,000 donation to The Greater Houston Storm Relief Fund before Thursday’s game. Hopefully many others will follow that lead.

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.


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.

Fighting illegal dumping

Illegal dumping of trash is a huge problem in some Houston neighborhoods. Enforcement is especially tricky because unless you catch someone in the act, there’s little to no evidence to go on. One way to help catch dumpers in the act is with cameras at locations where dumping frequently occurs. Council Member Jerry Davis has been working to get a camera program to fight illegal dumping going. He was able to get some money from the budget to work on this but couldn’t work out the details with HPD. We pick up the story from there.

CM Jerry Davis

CM Jerry Davis

So last year, Davis and his staff instead turned to Harris County for help. He offered Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen the $250,000 to purchase, assemble and monitor 25 cameras in areas where people frequently cast off garbage.

Deputies from constable precincts 1 and 5 make up the county’s environmental crimes unit but have jurisdiction throughout the county. The deputies would largely focus on areas in council districts with the most illegal dumping complaints, ranging from Sunnyside to Kashmere Gardens to the East End. The county would own the cameras and keep any funds generated from prosecuting crimes.

In Houston, any amount of illegal dumping can result in fines, and more than 5 pounds can yield jail time.

On Wednesday, City Council approved the agreement, which could span three years with renewals. Harris County commissioners are expected to take it up early next month.

“It was a lengthy process and, yes, we did get a little bit upset at times,” Davis said. “But we just persevered and worked with the legal department to make sure this gets done because the people are counting on it.”

HPD environmental senior officer Stephen Dicker largely agreed with Davis’ assessment of why the city opted to work with the county. Dicker said HPD talks fell apart two years ago when he told the city he would need to add 15 people, effectively doubling the investigations unit, to set up, man and track the new cameras to the tune of $1.7 million. The money simply wasn’t there.

The city’s environmental unit also tends to focus on larger commercial and industrial offenders that have a bigger public health impact, Dicker said.

“The emphasis just doesn’t match up,” Dicker said. “He’s looking at just trash on the streets. We do water pollution, air pollution. Those are much bigger impacts. But we do hope the program with the county works.”

I’m glad to see this because it really is a problem, and for those of us who are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where it doesn’t happen, we have no idea what it’s like to put up with this. I get why HPD focuses its environmental enforcement efforts on commercial and industrial offenders, but I’m still disappointed that the department didn’t have the capability to take this on, given what a big quality of life issue it is. This is one reason why I keep saying that we need to have a much better understanding than we currently do about how HPD prioritizes its budget, which very much informs how it prioritizes what crimes it pursues. I have no doubt that there wasn’t an additional $1.7 million to be found in the HPD budget as it currently stands, but I also have no doubt that we could re-prioritize that budget in a way that would have allowed this. Maybe we would still not choose to pursue this, but we can’t know that until we have a clearer picture of what HPD does and why it does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t do.

I will also note that one of the things that a garbage fee could help finance is a stronger enforcement organization against all forms of illegal dumping. We fund the Solid Waste department through general revenue, which makes Houston different than other Texas cities. They do a great job, but they could do more of it, and there would be more room in the budget for other things. And no, I don’t expect this to be brought up for discussion any time soon. I’m just saying.

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?


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.

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.

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 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.

Recycling cartons

More curbside recycling options.

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

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

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

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

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

Recycle that cooking oil

A public service announcement from the city.

The holidays are upon us and that means cooking turkeys, hams and other foods that either require cooking oils to prepare or that generate a surplus of grease when cooked.

Used cooking oils and greases, when disposed down the kitchen drain, cool, harden and clog the pipes. Diluting it in hot soapy water is NOT a solution. You can avoid possible clogged drains for the holidays by putting excess grease in a disposable container and put it in the trash or drop-off at a place that recycles and turns it into a usable product, such as biodiesel.

In conjunction with the City of Houston Solid Waste Department, the following locations are designated drop-off points residents can take used cooking oils/greases for recycling:

City of Houston Environmental Service Centers:
North: Environmental Service Center
5614 Neches Street
Houston 77026
Phone: 713.699.1114
Second Thursday of each month – 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
South: Environmental Service Center
11500 South Post Oak Road
Houston 77035
Phone: 713. 551.7355
Tuesdays and Wednesdays – 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Second Saturday of each month – 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
West: Westpark Consumer Recycling Center
5900 Westpark Drive
Houston 77057
Phone: 713.837.0311
Monday through Saturday – 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Private Service Center in the Heights Area:
Central: Houston Biodiesel
1138 West 20th Street
Houston 77008
Phone: 713.222.0832
Monday through Friday – 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

For information about Corral the Grease or ways to properly dispose of used cooking grease visit

Good to know. Even if you can’t recycle, please don’t try to wash your used cooking oil down the drain. Your pipes will thank you.

The next wave of curbside recycling

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

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

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

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

The program began in 2009 with 10,000 households.

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

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

Next wave of recycling bins approved

From last week:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going after the dumpers

Glad to see this.


City Council District B will be the site of a pilot program in which five surveillance video cameras have been placed in undisclosed locations, [Mayor Annise] Parker announced. The cameras will be monitored in real time by the Houston Police Department’s Environmental Investigations Unit, which will relay information about illegal dumping incidents to patrol officers for follow-up.

Should the three-month pilot project prove effective, the city will buy another 20 cameras under a budget amendment by District B Councilman Jerry Davis.

“The pile of trash behind me is disgusting,” Parker said on the 1500 block of Maxine. “But the really bad news, the worst news, is that we have problems like this all over Houston. It’s bad enough when we have a condition like this in an out-of-the-way area that no one can see and experience. But we have conditions like this in neighborhoods. On tucked-away corners behind houses that our citizens have to deal with every day.”

This year’s city budget included $250,000 to buy new cameras, as well as upgrade those currently in use. The city long has used surveillance cameras to fight illegal dumping, Parker said, but because of changes in technology, including better visuals and reliability, “it was a good time to do this again.”

Parker hopes the program will identify 50 to 80 illegal dumping cases a month. HPD’s environmental investigations unit has investigated 1,159 cases so far this year, said officer Stephen Dicker.

Here’s the city’s press release on the initiative. Note the use of surveillance cameras, which in this instance strikes me as an appropriate way to deploy them to help fight crime. If you’re wondering about HPD having to watch hours of video to catch these dumpers, technology will lend a hand to that effort. I hope that effort turns out to be very successful.

If you want your trash to be collected

It’s best to put your trash can where the automated pickup arm can get it.

Three feet between bins, please

Last year, at least 9,000 trash cans in the city were left uncollected at some point, according to records kept by the city, a small percentage of the total number of bins emptied in a year, but enough to slow down an otherwise efficient operation.

On a recent morning, for example, one trash can was left too close to a mailbox, another was blocked by a parked car. [Garbage truck driver Derrick] Colomb had no choice but to slap orange tags on the offending bins.

Other times, what makes sense to residents becomes a huge inconveniences for the trash collector: a box full of paper sitting on top of a bin that fell off and spilled when Colomb tried to pick it up; smaller items of garbage thrown into the bin without being bagged, such as dirty paper towels, spill all over the front yard; bins that are filled over capacity.


The ZIP codes with most uncollected trash calls are 77004, 77026 and 77087, according to city records.

City officials say those neighborhoods are plagued with unauthorized trash cans and illegal dumping.

“They in general put out more trash and trash cans,” said Jeffery Williams, deputy assistant director of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

I seem to recall my bin not being emptied once or twice, but I don’t recall receiving a tag on it, which would presumably have explained why. If I’m remembering accurately, I’d say the most likely reason was a parked car too close to the bin. If you’ve ever seen the way this works, you’d understand why this is an issue. Basically, there’s a swinging arm that protrudes from the truck, with a pincer end that grabs the bin, then the arm lifts the bin and swings it over the truck, turning it upside down to empty it. This is true for both trash and single stream recycling bins. I definitely do see loose bits of trash or recycling on the ground occasionally after pickup, probably on days that are a little windy. Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered about this, now you know. Watch where you put your bins, and don’t overfill them or stack anything on top of them. Your garbage collector will thank you for it.

City seeks One Bin For All RFQs

Calling all vendors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compost that Christmas tree

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

One bin to rule them all

This would be an innovative approach to deal with Houston’s unacceptably low recycling rate.

Under what is being called “Total Reuse: One Bin for All,” residents would wheel everything to the curb in one barrel and let the city sort it out.

If Houston can find a private-sector partner to help it build what could be a $100 million plant that would separate bottles from cans from paper from food from e-waste from yard clippings, the city would vault from one of the nation’s laggards in municipal recycling to one of the paragons.


City solid waste officials traveled to Germany last year to look at a facility there. Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director, toured a plant this year in the city of Roseville, in northern California, that she said is, perhaps, the closest thing in the country to what Houston envisions. The Clinton Climate Initiative has lent Houston a full-time expert for free to help review the technology.

The plant would have conveyor belts, ballistic shredders, optical scanners, density separators and other technologies to sift from the contents of your trash can everything that can be recycled. At peak performance, the city could resell some of the dry materials and compost the food, or even put it into a digester that produces methane gas to power the facility. While all of these technologies have been put to widespread use, they have not been integrated into the kind of catch-all operation Houston envisions, Spanjian said.

“It relies on technology to look at every single material and decide whether that can be reused,” she said.

This is all very much in the conceptual phase right now. There’s no proposal and no funding mechanism for anything. I like the idea, and one reason why is because people are often very bad about separating trash from recyclables on their own, at least in public venues. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an outdoor event in Houston that had “garbage” bins and “recycling” bins whose contents weren’t indistinguishable. People either don’t notice, can’t tell the difference, or just don’t care. I recognize that’s not the problem this is designed to solve, but it is part of it. I hope this pans out, it would be a big step forward and could only enhance our coolness factor, too. Swamplot has more.

Recycle that polystyrene

From the Inbox:

Polystyrene Foam Recycling Available

Beginning Monday, June 25, 2012

Beginning Monday, June 25, 2012, the City of Houston will accept clean block style or packaging polystyrene foam at the Westpark Recycling Center, 5900 Westpark, Houston 77057 and the Environmental Service Center South, 11500 South Post Oak Lane, Houston 77045.  Residents can drop off polystyrene foam at both facilities.

The operating hours for the Westpark Recycling Center are Monday – Saturday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. The Environmental Service Center South is open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. and the second Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Thanks to the generosity of Total Petrochemicals & Refining USA, Inc, the City of Houston Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) has obtained a polystyrene densifier and compactor machine that enables SWMD to transform polystyrene waste into a valuable recycled material. Up until now, polystyrene foams – commonly known as “Styrofoam” – were bulk materials used in packaging that ended up in Houston’s landfills.  Now, polystyrene foam can be compressed by a factor of 40 to 1.  As a result, the densified polystyrene foam becomes a product that can be recycled and reused in a variety of commercial and residential uses.

For more information about polystyrene foam recycling and collection, contact Sandra Jackson at 713.837.9164 or email

To learn more about recycling in the City of Houston, visit,, Facebook at and on Twitter @houstontrash.

Very cool. Every time we get a box that has those big styrofoam blocks in it, I want to do something other than throw them out – it sure seems like you ought to be able to recycle them – but there has been no choice. Not anymore, thankfully. I hope someday that these items will be allowed in curbside recycling as well. Regardless, kudos to the Solid Waste department for making this happen.

UPDATE: This is only for styrofoam blocks and packaging, not packing peanuts as my original title read. Those should be taken to your nearest FedEx/Kinkos or UPS Store for reuse. Please remember not to mix the biodegradable peanuts with the styrofoam ones. Thanks to Andy F. for the correction.

Going green to save some green

The city of Houston has made significant investments in energy savings.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors named Mayor Annise Parker the winner of Mayors’ Climate Protection Award last year for green building initiatives that incentivize conservation and energy-efficient design features.

“We don’t do it just because we get attention. We do it because it’s been good for the city’s bottom line,” Parker told City Council in introducing Laura Spanjian, whom Parker hired two years ago to fill the director of sustainability position she created.

Spanjian walked Council through a long list of the city’s green initiatives that included:

A bike share program scheduled to expand to 200 bikes at 20 kiosks in downtown, Montrose, the Heights, Texas Medical Center and the Museum District by year’s end.

Four wind turbines to be placed atop the Houston Permitting Center on Washington Avenue.

A plan to retrofit 297 city buildings to reduce energy use by 30 percent. Energy savings are expected to cover the cost of the alterations within a decade.

Near completion of replacement of incandescent bulbs at the city’s 2,450 intersections with traffic signals with LEDs, which are expected to cut energy bills by $3.6 million a year.

A lot of this investment has been paid for with federal stimulus dollars, which is important because the city’s budget, like those of many other cities, can’t often afford the up front cost of such investments. Taking advantage of those funds while they were available was smart and will pay off for years to come.

[CM Oliver] Pennington and others also asked about the most visible of green initiatives – recycling. More than a third of the city’s homes do not have curbside recycling pickup. Of those that do, only half have the 96-gallon containers.

“The challenge is recycling costs more money than picking up trash. Since we’re the only major city in America without a garbage fee, there is no economic incentive. The constraint is entirely budgetary,” Parker said.

I’ve asked about that before as well. Basically, the city generates revenue from the recyclables they collect, and when they have enough of that revenue they buy another truck to do the single stream curbside collection, thus expanding the service. I was going to say that I had not heard of any recent expansion announcements or other news concerning the program, but now I have.

[Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes] said that if Council would agree to a recycling fee of $3.75 to $4 a month per household, though, by the end of the year he could have a 96-gallon green recycling barrel at every home in the city and the people and trucks in place to pick it up.

That would be “instead of whenever” if he cannot get the fee, he said. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done without charging households directly.

In fact, Hayes said, he plans to bring the big green barrels to 30,000 to 50,000 additional homes in the coming year. He won’t say which neighborhoods are first in line until he makes a formal proposal later this spring. The city picks up garbage at 375,000 homes. Currently 105,000 homes have single-stream recycling — the big green barrels. Another 100,000 homes have dual stream recycling — the small bins. Residents have been clamoring for expansion of recycling.


On Wednesday’s agenda, Hayes is asking Council for $87,500 for a study “to determine the viability and fiscal incentives of establishing an Enterprise Fund for certain Solid Waste Operations…”

An enterprise fund separates an operation from the general fund. That means it is no longer funded by property and sales taxes. But the fund takes in money through fees. Current examples include the city’s airport and water systems, which charge customers, not taxpayers, to fund their operations.

The proposed study would examine whether to create an enterprise fund to cover the city’s three solid waste transfer stations. The stations are drop-off points for the trucks that make curbside collections and the pickup sites for much larger trucks that haul the garbage off to a landfill. The stations save city and company trucks from having to drive clear across the city to a landfill each time they fill up. The city already charges the companies that use the transfer stations.

If the study recommends an enterprise fund and the Council approves one, the city’s Solid Waste Management Department would keep the money the users pay instead of forwarding it to the city’s treasury.

I know a lot of people in neighborhoods that don’t have single stream recycling that would gladly pay the fee to get it, but I wouldn’t claim that’s a representative sample. I suspect the idea would be well received, but we’ll know more after today’s Council meeting. What do you think about the idea?

Recycle your Christmas tree

And now, a message from the City of Houston Solid Waste Department:

Christmas Tree Recycling


The City of Houston (COH) Solid Waste Management Department will embark on its 21st year of Christmas tree recycling(.pdf) after the holiday by providing recycling drop-off sites throughout Houston. All drop-off sites will be closed on New Year’s Day.

Every year, Houstonians discard thousands of used Christmas trees that could be recycled into useable items. The COH is encouraging residents to recycle their Christmas trees to give them a new lease on life and make the recycling of Christmas trees a family tradition.

Please remove tinsel, lights, ornaments, plastic tree stands and plastic water bowls from the trees. The recycled trees will be converted into mulch, which will in turn help save landfill space and help preserve the environment.

Trees with artificial snow (flocked) will not be accepted for recycling; they will be picked up on the neighborhood’s scheduled “Junk Waste” day in February. Commercial vendor trees will not be accepted. Living Earth Technology, a leading composting company in Houston, has partnered with the COH to make this a very cost-effective program for the city.

Living Earth Technology composts all the Christmas trees at no cost to the COH.

Homes with COH automated garbage collection service may place their trees at the curb on their “Tree Waste” day in January or bring them to one of the Christmas tree recycling locations(pdf) – (jpg version)

Please bring residential Christmas trees to one of the following drop-off locations:


Hours and Dates of Operation:

Dec. 27, 2011 through Jan. 8, 2012 (Closed Jan. 1st and 2nd, 2012)

OPEN Weds. – Sun., 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

  • Sunbeam Neighborhood Depository – 5100 Sunbeam
  • Central Neighborhood Depository – 2240 Central St.
  • Kirkpatrick Neighborhood Depository – 5565 Kirkpatrick
  • Windfern Neighborhood Depository – 6023 Windfern
  • N. Main Neighborhood Depository – 9003 N. Main
  • Southwest Neighborhood Depository -10785 SW Freeway

OPEN DAILY, 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

  • Doss Park (gates close at 5) – 2500 Frick Road
  • Memorial Park (Ball Fields 4 and 5) – 7300 Memorial Drive
  • T.C. Jester Park – 4200 T.C. Jester West
  • Kingwood – Bens View Lane @ Bens Branch Drive
  • Elington Airport Recycling Drop-off –HWY 3@ Brantley Roa

MON-SAT 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Saturday 9am – 12pm, CLOSED SUNDAY

  • Westpark Consumer Recycling Center – 5900 Westpark

MON-SAT 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., CLOSED SUNDAY

  • Living Earth – 5625 Crawford Road
  • Living Earth – 1503 Industrial Drive (Gessner @ Hwy 90)
  • Living Earth – 1700 Highway 90A East
  • Living Earth – 12202 Cutten Road
  • Living Earth – 16138 Highway 6
  • Living Earth – 5210 S. Sam Houston Pkwy.

For more information on locations and hours, visit the Christmas Tree Recycling page here (.pdf version).

Click here for the .jpg version of the Christmas Tree Recycling flyer (.jpg)

Thank you.