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Texas Campaign for the Environment

Council approves new recycling deal

Huzzah!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Rebidding reycling

Do-over!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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.

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 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.

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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.

So what happened to One Bin for All?

KUHF asks the question.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Still unclear where One Bin For All stands

Your guess is as good as mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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.

One Bin For All RFPs

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie Scruggs: Ways Houston can increase its recycling rate

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

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

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

ScruggsImage1_LargeGreenBin

It all starts with consistent programs and education

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

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

ScruggsImage2_RecycleRight

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

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

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

Incentives help to improve recycling rates

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

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

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

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

Creating a City Wide Recycling Culture

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

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

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

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

ScruggsImage4_PackagingWaste

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

Long-term Zero Waste Goal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City issues One Bin RFPs

From the inbox:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this.

Dallas adopts plastic bag fee

A fee, not a ban.

plastic-bag

Stores in Dallas will charge customers five cents for most kinds of plastic or paper carryout bags, under a measure approved Wednesday by the City Council.

At the urging of council member Dwaine Caraway, the council voted 8-6 to assess an “environmental fee” for single-use carryout bags. The five-cent charge takes effect Jan. 1.

Single-use bags will be banned entirely at retail outlets in city buildings and at city-sponsored events. The ban apparently would apply, for example, to gift shops at city-owned museums, American Airlines Center, even the Omni Dallas Hotel, which adjoins the Dallas convention center.

Caraway has complained for months that plastic bags, in particular, were creating litter problems throughout the city.

[…]

The Texas Retailers Association opposed the bag fee, even though stores will keep 10 percent of the money they collect, and even though the measure approved Wednesday is less stringent than the outright ban on single-use bags that Caraway originally sought.

Gary Huddleston, a member of the association’s executive committee, said the fee will be burdensome to stores and customers alike.

“We personally believe the solution to litter in the city of Dallas is a strong recycling program and also punishing the people that litter, and not punishing the retailer,” said Huddleston, director of consumer affairs for the Kroger Co.

Stores will have to devote administrative resources to tracking the fees, he said, and the nickel that customers must pay for each disposable bag is a nickel that otherwise might have been used “to buy more product in my store.”

City officials said the money collected from the bag fee will go toward enforcement and education efforts. Those efforts could cost $250,000 and require the hiring of 12 additional employees, said Jill Jordan, an assistant city manager.

After the council vote, Huddleston would not rule out a legal challenge by the retailers association. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has already been asked to weigh in on the legality of Texas cities’ banning of single-use bags. Council member Sheffie Kadane, who opposed the five-cent fee, said the city can almost count on being sued by retailers or plastic bag manufacturers or both.

See here for some background on the debate in Dallas. As you know, AG Greg Abbott has been asked for an opinion about the legality of municipal bag laws. This opinion was requested by State Rep. Dan Flynn, on behalf of the Texas Retailers Association and its CEO, Ronnie Volkenning. The Trib reports on environmental groups responding to this request.

Supporters of the ordinances say plastic bags harm the environment. The Texas Campaign for the Environment has been one of the most vocal supporters of the ordinances. “We want the attorney general to stay out of this issue altogether,” said Robin Schneider, the group’s executive director.

The Texas Municipal League was the first to submit a brief to the attorney general’s office. The brief included a statement from state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, from 2011 in which he argued for local control over the issue.

“For the state to determine what a city’s problems are or solutions that it may have or may not have is a little bit of an overextension of the Legislature,” Seliger said.

Because the cities are responsible for supplying plastic bags, they should be able to determine if they wish to ban them, he said in an interview.

“They spend much more time as garbage than they do as carriers of groceries anyway,” Seliger added.

The Texas Municipal League argued in its brief that a plastic bag should not be classified as a “container” or a package” — the two words specifically mentioned in the Heath and Safety Code.

“A plastic bag is not a container or a package, but merely the means by which a container or a package is transported,” the brief said.

Volkening said the most environmental position would be to encourage the recycling of plastic bags, not banning their use.

That may be Volkening’s opinion, but as you may recall from Tyson Sowell’s guest post here, groups like the Texas Campaign for the Environment think the ban is the way to go. In fact, they’d push for a ban on paper bags as well. Regardless, I like Seliger’s statement, which you would think would be appealing to conservatives. And it is for many, but there’s a significant number for whom local control is only for policies they like. We’ll see which group is happy with Abbott’s forthcoming opinion.

The Trib writes about One Bin For All

Mostly familiar information if you’ve been following this story, but a good overview if it’s new to you.

Laura Spanjian, Houston’s director of sustainability, says the city is spending millions to expand its conventional recycling service and is still evaluating all the options for its one-bin concept. The city hopes that the one-bin idea would eventually divert three-quarters of its trash from landfills and that new facilities would create more than 100 “high tech” jobs.

Spanjian said the city believes its proposal is the best way to boost dismal recycling rates and save money.

“We’re not paying the capital at all,” she said. “Our goal is to keep it cost-neutral.”

Kim Jones, a a professor of environmental engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said that recyclable material is most valuable when it is dry, so mixing it with trash such as food could make it harder to sell. “That’s going to contaminate your paper, and your end user is not going to want that material,” he said.

The Texas Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group, said that China, a major market for America’s recyclables, has recently begun rejecting contaminated paper. And the group’s program director, Melanie Scruggs, is skeptical about the city’s promise of jobs.

Sorting facilities “depend on workers to sort out the waste from the recycling, so whatever objects you’re telling people to throw in there with recyclables potentially creates dangerous working conditions,” Scruggs said. “Nobody wants to create jobs where you’re sorting through trash.” While Houston points to Roseville, Calif.’s one-bin system as a model, Scruggs said her group has visited the town’s facility and found workers who had to sort animal waste from other trash, a potential health risk.

Spanjian said the sorting and drying technologies for waste have improved. She added that the city would turn whatever is not recyclable into energy through some form of gasification. That would involve heating the waste in a chamber to create synthetic gas, which could then generate electricity or be turned into fuel.

But questions also remain about the waste-to-energy strategy. A study released last year by SAIC, an engineering and consulting firm, found that the cost of turning waste into usable energy could run higher than $100 per ton. Houston now spends just $24.60 per ton on landfill fees.

“There’s a huge interest in the topic,” said Scott Pasternak, an environmental consultant who worked on the study. “It can technically be done, but the cost of doing that is going to be, at this point in Texas, substantially greater than existing technologies.” Pasternak said landfill costs are much higher in California, which is why waste-to-energy strategies may be more feasible there.

Here’s the One Bin website. The main thing I learned from this story that I didn’t already know is that Austin’s recycling rate – 24% – is nothing to write home about. The city’s strongest argument is that it can get a much higher diversion rate via One Bin than it could via single stream recycling. That’s hotly disputed by opponents like the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who argue (among other things) that a broad-based education and outreach campaign combined with finishing the job of bringing single stream recycling to all eligible Houston households would boost diversion rates considerably. I get what they’re saying, but I think that would need to be an intensive and long-term project. As it is, even in neighborhoods like mine, lots of people don’t use the big green bins, and in my experience every public space that has separate garbage and recycling receptacles there’s more garbage in the recycling bins and more recyclables in the garbage bins. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of work to change habits, is what I’m saying. Taking an approach that doesn’t depend on people doing the right thing has some appeal to it.

Be that as it may, TCE has launched a new website, Zero Waste Houston, to push back on One Bin. Their strongest argument to me is the fact that none of this is proven technology yet, and claims about turning non-reusable waste into energy are suspect at best. I had the opportunity to hear Don Pagel, the director of the One Bin program, and Melanie Scruggs of TCE talk to our civic association recently. They both do a good job advocating for their respective positions, and as much as they disagree on this strategy they both agree on the ultimate goal of diverting less waste to landfills. The main fact I learned from that meeting was that the city will be putting out RFPs in the next month or so. RFQs were put out last year, and this is the next step. If anything is going to happen with this – and there’s no guarantee of that – we’ll know it in the next twelve months or so.

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.

What other environmental groups think about “One Bin For All”

As you know, last week the city announced that it had won the $1 million runnerup prize from the Bloomberg Foundation that would enable it to begin work on a single-bin solution for solid waste and recycling. While this announcement was generally met with cheers, the Texas Campaign for the Environment was not among those cheering. Their opposition to this proposal was a reiteration of previously expressed concerns about it. This got me wondering what other environmental groups thought about this proposal, since none of the coverage I’ve read has included any discussion of that. So I contacted several environmental groups and asked them for their feedback on this proposal. These are the responses I got.

From Frank Blake of the Houston chapter of the Sierra Club:

1. The proposal claims that it will reduce air pollution by reducing truck routes. But I don’t understand how truck travel would be significantly reduced since the overall volume of material to be transported would be the same. (50 truck loads of trash and 50 truck loads of recycling are still 100 truck loads if you combine it all; and since trash trucks fill up fairly quickly, there wouldn’t be much reduction in travel miles).

2. Since this ‘innovative’ method has not been tested on a large scale, and involves multiple technologies, is it really more cost effective than other existing methods? The costs to develop ‘innovative’ technological approaches often exceed estimates. And does the ‘One Bin’ collection method just shift certain processing costs down the line to other stages? Or result in reduced market value of recycled materials (contamination issues)?

3. Initial source separation enhances the market value of certain recyclables – e.g., paper and cardboard. Paper products co-mingled with other trash and food waste would have significantly reduced value, and limited recycling options. If you want to efficiently recycle paper products, one doesn’t mix them with food waste and other contaminants.

4. Composting is mentioned as a component of the ‘One Bin for All’ program. But how is it possible to maintain quality control for compost generated from general trash collections? General trash would include everything from broken glass, fluorescent lights (mercury), pharmaceuticals, and a variety of hazardous substances. What could such compost be used for? (Note: both Austin and San Antonio have initiated pilot curbside compost collections – i.e., compost materials are collected separately from general trash and recyclables).

5. What ‘waste to fuel’ technologies would be involved? The use of municipal waste as fuel can present problems because of the possible inclusion of contaminants and hazardous wastes. Where would such ‘waste to fuel’ facilities be located? Would the public be involved in any ‘waste to fuel’ decisions?

6. Other cities, including Dallas and Austin have adopted zero waste plans, with goals to reduce waste going to landfills by 90% and more. Houston has not yet adopted a long range plan or goals. Would adoption of a “One Bin for All” program with expensive processing facilities limit future options in Houston? What if there is a ceiling on the effective recycling rates that this method can accomplish? (and there is concern that the claimed “up to 70% rate” is overly optimistic).

7. How does a “One Bin for All” program really discourage waste, or encourage more ‘sustainable’, lower CO2 emitting lifestyles? It seems to do the opposite in ways, by sending a message to the public that it doesn’t matter what they discard, and that they don’t need to be conscious of recycling. (if recycling is perceived as difficult in some quarters, it is in part because the City of Houston has invested very little in public education over the years and has had different recycling programs or lack of programs in different parts of the City).

8. I am concerned and puzzled that the City of Houston would roll out this type of comprehensive proposal without more consultation, input and involvement with the public, and recycling and environmental advocates.

Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund had this to say:

I think the One Bin proposal is an interesting and innovative approach to the issue. The city of Houston needed to take a proactive step to deal with its low recycling rate. This proposal beat out many others from other cities to win the Bloomberg Foundation grant, and I would like to see it succeed. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.

Finally, Luke Metzger of Environment Texas said he would defer to TCE on this issue, since they are the experts on waste among Texas environmental groups and he had not been following the story. David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters also deferred to TCE, saying that there’s a division of labor in the environmental community, with TCE taking the lead on waste issues. I hadn’t considered that before now, but in retrospect it makes sense.

So there you have it. There are definitely concerns about the Houston One Bin solution, though they are not universally shared. I do think we are low on detail at this point, and it would be nice to know more about the history of this kind of solution in other cities, and why Houston thinks past failures can be overcome. I also think Frank Blake makes a strong point about the message this sends that recycling would become the city’s responsibility and not the individual’s, which in turn provides a disincentive for people to think about their own usage patterns and their own need to follow the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. The idea of recycling just doesn’t exist for a lot of people. I base this statement on the fact that every public recycling receptacle I’ve ever seen in Houston always has at least as much trash in it as recyclables, and every public trash can always has lots of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other obvious recyclables; this is true even when the trash can and the recycling bin are right next to each other. People just don’t think about it. I suspect that even in neighborhoods with the 96-gallon single-stream recycling bins, participation is less than it should be, and in neighborhoods that still use the little bins that don’t take glass or cardboard, it’s pathetically low. That’s without taking into account apartments, offices, restaurants, and so forth. This is the crux of the city’s case for the one bin solution. One could certainly argue that a combination of a more aggressive single-stream rollout plus a PR campaign to educate people about recycling would be a more ideal way for the city to go. I agree that it would be more ideal, but it’s not clear to me that it would get better results, even if the claims about how much material can be usefully recovered from a single bin solution are overstated. What’s the minimum level of participation in single-stream recycling that’s necessary to be “better” than the single-bin solution? I don’t know the answer to that.

Anyway. I would certainly prefer that Houston be a better recycling city. I’m open to arguments that it’s possible to get to where we should be as a city without the one bin solution. I get the concerns, and I plan to follow up with the city to see how they would respond to them. What are your thoughts?

Not everyone likes the One Bin solution

From the inbox:

Texas Campaign for the Environment vowed today to mobilize Houstonians against Mayor Annise Parker’s so-called “One Bin for All” proposal, saying that the scheme will take recycling away from the minority of residents who already have it, delay expanding it to new neighborhoods and lay the groundwork for future environmental damage.

“This has been tried before, it’s called a dirty materials recovery facility, or dirty MRF,” says Tyson Sowell, Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment in Houston. “Similar facilities have been built elsewhere with promises of huge recycling rates, but none have delivered on their promise and were abandoned.”

The city is proposing that Houstonians put all their waste into one bin where it will be separated mechanically at a new $100 million facility to be located at a landfill. The city claims that technology exists for separating out recyclables from other garbage which could improve the Houston’s recycling rate to 75%. Environmental and industry groups say the facility will not work and will only delay expanding curbside recycling to all Houston residents.

“Mayor Annise Parker has ambitious goals, but all of us will be sorely disappointed when $100 million gets spent on a facility which leaves us worse off than before,” Sowell said. “We want to work with the city, but we are accountable to the environment, and a dirty MRF is wasteful and ill-advised.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment is preparing to release later this week two open letters to the mayor expressing skepticism over the scheme, one from recycling industry leaders and another from national recycling advocates, including Annie Leonard of “Story of Stuff” fame. According to the letters, many valuable recyclables, like paper, cardboard and some plastics, become contaminated during comingling, preventing them from having any value in the marketplace.

“Contamination is an issue with any recycling program,” says Rick Anthony, founder of the Grassroots Recycling Network and pioneer in the field of recycling. “But when you are purposely putting your coffee grounds in with your newsprint it devalues what could have been two valuable commodities. You can’t recycle that paper and you compost those coffee grounds. They become useless. Separating at the curb is the only way to ensure high recycling rates.”

Additionally, advocates say that another key problem with Houston’s proposal is that it encourages residents to put their electronic waste, like computers and televisions, in the same bin as other discards.

“Computers and televisions do not belong in the same bin as dirty diapers,” says Mike Buckles, owner and operator of TechnoCycle, an electronics recycling company based in Houston. “This has the potential to create a whole host of health and safety issues for companies like mine. I don’t want to deal with old food stuck on a computer monitor.”

Houston is behind other major cities when it comes to recycling, with a majority of residents having no recycling available at their home. The city’s application for the Bloomberg Grant admitted that “the mayor is constantly besieged by citizens to bring recycling to their neighborhoods.” The One Bin proposal would remove curbside recycling from neighborhoods where it already exists, and would foreclose any plans to expand it into any of the neighborhoods now seeking it.

“We know what works and we know that this doesn’t. These types of facilities have proven to be ineffective, but separating your recyclables from your garbage at the curb works, it’s just as easy, and it’s a tenth of the price,” says Tyson Sowell. “We are talking with Houstonians door to door and they see through this. We trust the Mayor will change course soon and lead the city in the right direction on recycling.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment had previously outlined its objections to the single bin plan here. At this point, the discussion is beyond my level of expertise. I will do my best to learn more and come to a judgment about it.

“One Bin For All” in the running for prize money

This happened before the election, which now seems as a remote a time as the 19th century.

Houston is one of 20 finalist cities from among the 305 nationwide that applied for a $5 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies for the boldest local initiative to address a national problem.

The city’s proposal, “Total Reuse — One Bin for All,” calls for the construction of a mega-recycling plant that could ultimately allow the city to recycle as much as 75 percent of all residential trash, up from just 14 percent now. More importantly to the average resident, it would allow you to throw all your garbage in a single can and have the city sort it out at the plant.

In the spring, Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce the grand-prize winner of the Mayors Challenge and four $1 million prize winners. This month a team of city officials is invited to attend the Bloomberg Ideas Camp, a two-day gathering in New York City during which they will collaborate with experts to prepare One Bin for All finalist application.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Parker’s statement. I like the idea of this and I am glad to see focus on Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate, but after I posted that first story I got some feedback from the Texas Campaign for the Environment, which is skeptical of this technology. The following was sent to me by Tyson Sowell to more fully explain their thinking on this:

Houston’s “one bin” waste reduction proposal: What exactly does this mean?

A few weeks ago the City of Houston’s Sustainability Department announced, to much fanfare, that they were considering a “One Bin” solution for collected recyclables, organics (like food waste), and garbage. In the meantime, City of Houston officials say they will keep working to expand single-stream recycling collection while they explore this other option. However, the technologies being mulled over are generally untested. Some technologies promoted by waste lobbyists as brave, new diversion techniques are actually destructive to the environment. While everybody likes innovative thinking, still, we have questions. Here are some questions we encourage Houstonians to ask about Houston’s “One Bin” proposal:

  • How has this technology worked elsewhere? We know that in other states and countries with materials recovery facilities which take in commingled trash and recycling (commingled MRF), they need either incineration or loopholes to reach meaningful “diversion” levels. What the city is proposing would include anaerobic digestion (AD; a process whereby microbes break down organic matter and produce methane to be used for energy) for organics and some of the paper; this is especially untested, and AD systems elsewhere are challenging to operate even with very controlled feedstocks and are very expensive to build. Lancaster, CA has signed a contract to try the technology the city is proposing, so why not wait to observe their performance before jumping in?
  • What will the markets be like for the recovered materials, and how do they compare with what we could get from expanded single-stream recycling? Historically, commingled MRF’s have to sell their paper and cardboard at lower prices because they are contaminated by being mixed in with garbage. The system envisioned here would put much of that paper into the AD, but
    is this a truly “higher and better use” than recycling? Are we saying that Houston is giving up on paper recycling? If so, the city needs to demonstrate why AD is a higher and better use for paper than recycling. TCE Executive Director Robin Schneider visited an out-of-state facility that separates recyclables mixed with trash and the valuable cardboard was clearly degraded.
  • How much would this cost? In particular, what would be the impact on tipping fees? Facilities of this sort in California have tipping fees more than 3 times what we are charged locally. In Dallas they were talking about these facilities in the $100 million range, but since something like this has never been built, we have no idea what cost overruns might look like, or what the long-term contractual obligations for the city might end up being. Ask the cities locked into ugly incinerator contracts from the ‘70s, and they’ll tell you that when it comes to trash technologies, extreme caution is crucial for local governments. Harrisburg PA, for example, has gone into bankruptcy because it went whole hog for what was supposed to be a cure-all incinerator. We need to show great care and proceed slowly before buying into this alleged solution to all of our diversion problems.
  • What will be the full long-term impact on reduction and reuse? Big increases in recycling are good, but not as good as big decreases in total discards. There is an ethical argument that encouraging throwaway mindsets and a disposable culture is absolutely unacceptable. Even under a less strict ethic, this proposal seems to do nothing to encourage reduction and reuse, and may even create incentives to throw things away. How does this proposal ensure that we are using fewer resources and consuming less stuff—not just recycling more—in the long-run?
  • Is this about the best use of our resources, or just the best we expect from Houston? We should not assume that Houston can’t recycle, or that folks here just don’t care enough. Sure, Houston is no San Francisco, but neither is Fresno, and Fresno has a 75% diversion rate without the need for risky new technologies. Fairfax County, Virginia is not setting the world on fire with 42%, but that is still 3 times higher than what we are doing in Houston right now. Orange County, North Carolina is at 61% waste reduction, and Nashville reduced waste by 30% in just three years. Their plan is to get to 60% reduction by 2018, and they are well on their way. Some of these communities—including San Francisco—are curious about the technology proposed here as a means of dealing with what is left over after recycling, composting, reduction, reuse and other diversion activities. Why shouldn’t we follow this same path by passing a Zero Waste Plan with strong benchmarks, putting proven policies in place and then circling back to these proposals once we have finished the basics and other communities have tested this new technology for us?

It be ars repeating that Laura Spanjian, the City’s Director of Sustainability, has made it clear that Houston will continue expanding curbside single-stream service. Houston has more households without curbside recycling than any in Texas and almost any big city in the country. It is clear that we need big changes, that they will not happen overnight and that we will need to be creative and flexible if we are going to catch up to where we ought to be. The least renewable resource of them all is time, but haste on waste policy can mean doing much more harm than good. These questions and others seek to ensure that our planet is the priority, and that Houston reaches true sustainability in a safe, proven and truly innovative fashion.

Some good questions to ponder, and I intend to have a conversation with Laura Spanjian about this in the near future to hear some more answers. The more discussion we have about this, the better. CultureMap has more.

Tyson Sowell: The Problem of Single-Use Bags

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

On Wednesday, June 20, Houston City Council approved a budget amendment to

“address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags city-wide. This proposal will be taken to the appropriate committee for proper vetting, consideration and input from businesses, residents and environmental advocates.”

Tyson Sowell

Texas Campaign for the Environment supports the phasing out of single-use bags and advocates for reusable bags. Brownsville was the first city in Texas to address the pollution impacts of single-use bags. After a year of study, the City of Brownsville decided to limit both paper and plastic bags, even though they were home to a major paper bag manufacturer. Soon after, South Padre Island and Fort Stockton, in West Texas, passed local ordinances limiting single-use bags and, most recently, (after an extensive study) Austin too found limiting single-use bags makes economic and environmental sense.

Plastic pollution in the US has increased by 165% since 1969 making plastic pollution the third most abundant pollution type. It is estimated that Houstonians consume 1.9 million plastic bags per day or more than 693 million plastic bags per year.

So, why not just recycle them?

Nationwide recycling rates for single-use bags are very poor – 60% to 90% of paper bags and 95% of plastic bags are NOT recycled. Additionally, voluntary recycling programs for plastic bags have been unsuccessful in keeping them out of landfills, waterways, trees, and storm drains. For example, Austin’s plastic bag recycling pilot program, at its best after distributing 900,000 reusable bags, was only able to achieve a 27% recycling rate. If the City of Houston followed this route, assuming they could achieve this same level of success, 1.4 million bags per day, would still be free to roam our streets and swim in our waterways.

As Houston grows, its waste problem grows with it and phasing out single-use bags is a step in the right direction to reduce our waste and keep our city beautiful. Buffalo Bayou is heavily polluted with plastic waste and continuing to ignore this problem will not make it go away but will make it worse. Even though paper bags biodegrade, they use more energy to manufacture and transport and are not any better for the environment overall.

Houston is the only city of the ten largest cities in Texas that does not provide curbside recycling for all of its residents. The recent budget crunch has been blamed time and time again for the City’s inability to expand this service. Phasing out plastic bags would save the City about $2 million per year which could be used to expand recycling and get Houston on the path to a green, clean future.

It’s time for Houston to get serious about its growing waste future. It’s time to bag the bags.

Tyson Sowell is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment – a statewide, grassroots, environmental policy advocacy organization. You can learn more at texasenvironment.org, at facebook.com/texasenvironment and follow on twitter at twitter.com/txenvironment.

The landfills of Waller County

There are three things I find remarkable about this story about a proposed landfill in Waller County, near Hempstead.

A Georgia-based company wants to build a landfill and industrial park just outside the city on Texas 6 and Kelley, on what is now 723 acres of private property known as the Deywood Ranch.

Officials with Green Group Holdings said they plan to invest about $40 million in what they are calling the Pintail Landfill and Pintail Industrial Park, bringing much-needed jobs to the community that has fallen on hard economic times since the closure of Hempstead’s biggest employer, Lawrence Marshall Chevrolet, in 2009.

Hempstead Mayor Michael Wolfe said the extra revenue and jobs would be inconsequential when compared to the negative effects a landfill would bring.

“This does not substantiate driving the economy in my personal opinion,” Wolfe said. “I don’t see this as (having) an immediate impact.”

[…]

Opponents also fear their property values will drop and the peaceful country life they are accustomed to will be disrupted by the sounds of as many as 200 trash trucks thundering through their community.

Oscar Allen, senior vice president of GreenFirst, LLC, a subsidiary of Green Group, said that the negative reaction is typical. He also said that most property value fears are exaggerated.

“Property values are not affected as much as people believe,” Allen said.

“In our experience and the industry’s experience, landfills do not decrease property values,” the company’s website states. “In fact, property owners near other landfill projects have sold their property for sizable profits.”

As someone who grew up a few miles from the Fresh Kills landfill, all I can say is that I’m surprised Allen’s trousers didn’t spontaneously combust when he said that. Things may be different now, but forty years after Fresh Kills was first built there was very little development of any kind in its vicinity. The West Shore Expressway was a mostly empty stretch of road, even as the rest of Staten Island was being built out. I’m sure just the smell of the landfill, which the prevalent winds would carry a long way, was enough to keep people away. Allen’s statement is ludicrous on its face.

More than 100 residents crowded into the Waller County Courthouse to voice their objections at a recent Hempstead City Council meeting. Mayor Wolfe said he recommended that the council oppose the landfill.

County Judge Glenn Beckendorff said he hopes residents read about the project before they take a stand.

“Nobody wants a landfill, but they’re a necessity of life,” Beckendorff said. “We will do our best to keep the quality of life in Waller County.”

Beckendorff said he’s known about Green Group’s landfill proposal since May, but a nondisclosure agreement prohibited the county from releasing the information to the public immediately.

I’m a little surprised that Waller County would be so apparently unconcerned about how the city of Hempstead might feel about this new neighbor. Harris County and Houston don’t always see eye to eye, but I’d expect that an equivalent public outcry plus official disapproval from our Council in a similar situation would mean something to the County. I’m also surprised that the county could be subject to an NDA like that. How would the potential development of a landfill not be considered public information once it became known to public officials? If the idea was to not upset Green Group’s ability to get permits before the poo started hitting the fan, I’d say that’s a feature, not a bug. Something seems rotten about this, and it’s not just the future air quality near Hempstead.

Finally, on a tangential note, I have to ask: Do we really need this much extra landfill capacity? Presumably, the developers envision trash from Houston and Harris County as being their main supply source. Given the long term recycling deal that Houston is seeking to make, one hopes that our long-range forecast for landfill space needs is at least leveling off, if not actually turning downward. I am told that the city’s Solid Waste department currently collects about 2,000 tons/month of single stream from 105,000 homes. Project that out to 375,000 homes and you get a little over 7,000 tons per month. Now consider that as of the year 2000 there were 717,945 households and 782,009 housing units – I’m not sure which is the proper figure to use for an apples-to-apples comparison here – and you could potentially double that number or more if we get on a long term path towards bringing single stream recycling to the whole city, and that’s even before we talk about businesses, restaurants, and so on. (For comparison, according to Solid Waste the city collects about 48,000 tons of trash each month.) Point being, there’s a whole lot Houston can, should, and hopefully will do to throw whatever projection Green Group is making out the window. Maybe before they build a big dump near people’s houses we ought to be absolutely sure it’s something that’s really needed, and not something that hopes to induce demand by its presence. See this letter to the editor from Texas Campaign for the Environment for more.

UPDATE: Via Swamplot, meet Stop Highway 6 Landfill. Not a lot of love in the Swamplot comments for these folks. I understand where that attitude is coming from, but I think it misses the bigger picture, which is that we should be working towards not needing more landfill space. The potential for Houston, and hopefully Harris County, to cut down the amount of solid waste it generates is enormous. Isn’t that the better way to go?

Here are the vetoes

Sunday was the deadline for Rick Perry to sign, veto, or leave unsigned all of the remaining bills from the regular legislative session. He had 1170 pieces of legislation awaiting a decision while he was busy gallivanting around the country. Yesterday, he finished the task, issuing a total of 24 vetoes, one of which was for a fairly high-profile bill.

Notable among the vetoed bills is HB 242, a measure that would have banned texting while driving.

“I support measures that make our roads safer for everyone, but House Bill 242 is a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults. Current law already prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from texting or using a cell phone while driving. I believe there is a distinction between the overreach of House Bill 242 and the government’s legitimate role in establishing laws for teenage drivers who are more easily distracted and laws providing further protection to children in school zones,” Perry said in his veto statement.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who wrote the texting while driving ban, said she was dismayed and disappointed that Perry vetoed the measure. Legislators’ decisions can save lives, and she said the texting ban would have done just that.

“From my perspective there will be blood on his hands,” Zaffirini said. “Every time that we hear about a tragedy related to distracted driving … I hope that is forwarded to the Governor.”

Perry’s vetoes will also mean a couple more agenda items for lawmakers to accomplish during the special session. He nixed sunset bills that are necessary to keep the Departments of Information Resources and Housing and Community Affairs going.

HB 2608, the sunset bill for TDHCA would continue operations of the agency until 2023, but Perry argued “prescriptive language was added to House Bill 2608 that would impose a new layer of bureaucracy that makes unrealistic demands of the state, delay assistance to communities hit by disasters and duplicate disaster planning conducted by the Texas Division of Emergency Management.”

Perry also took issue with the bill’s reliance on federal disaster recovery funds and a requirement the state issue plans for how it would use those funds.

“I do not take lightly the impact this veto may have in potentially shutting down TDHCA over the next year. That is why I have asked the legislature during this special session to amend language in pending legislation to continue the operation of TDHCA,” Perry stated.

You can see Perry’s statements here and here. Of greater interest to me are the bills he didn’t veto, including the Texas Cottage Food Law bill SB81 and the TV recycling bill SB329. As for the TDHCA bill, I don’t recall that being added to the call for the special session, but there’s still two weeks left in the session so there’s plenty of time for it if it needs to be in. Any surprises in what did and didn’t get vetoed to you?

TV recycling redux

Back in 2009, the Lege passed a bill that would have required television manufacturers that sell TVs in Texas to set up a recycling program for old sets. This was modeled after similar legislation passed in 2007 for computers and computer manufacturers. Unfortunately, the bill was vetoed by Rick Perry despite assurances from his staff that he was okay with it. Well, recycling advocates have gotten another bill passed, SB329, which they hope won’t get vetoed this time. Here’s the press release from Texas Campaign for the Environment:

Austin, TX – Environmentalists and recycling groups are celebrating a victory as a bill to spur recycling for obsolete televisions (Senate Bill 329) has passed through the Texas House of Representatives. The legislation, which already passed in the Texas Senate, would ensure that all manufacturers selling TVs to Texas consumers will offer recycling programs for all residents. With support from industry groups, local governments and recycling advocates, the bill will soon head to the Governor’s desk.

“This measure will keep toxic lead and mercury out of Texas landfills, while creating jobs in the recycling industry and saving local tax dollars,” said Robin Schneider, Executive Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We’re proud of our State Representatives and Senators for passing this important bill, and we urge Governor Perry to sign it into law when it reaches his desk.”

Each year, Americans dispose of an estimated 25 million televisions. Old-style CRT televisions can contain several pounds of lead and many newer flat-screen TVs contain mercury. Typically, only one in every five TVs is recycled. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Representative Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), puts the companies that make and sell televisions in charge of recycling them.

The legislation is similar to a 2007 state law that made computer manufacturers responsible for recycling their products in Texas. Under this law, computer-makers collected and recycled over 24 million pounds of old electronics in Texas last year.

Industry support has been a key factor in the bill’s success so far. The Consumer Electronics Association, which represents over 2,000 electronics companies, supports the bill. Local governments have also voiced their support – dozens of cities and counties, representing over half of all Texans, have passed local resolutions in favor of the bill. Twenty-four other states have passed similar laws for electronics recycling.

“It’s not just our environment that benefits – this program will also save local taxpayers money,” said Zac Trahan, Houston Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We applaud the manufacturers for taking responsibility for recycling old TVs. We should not spend our tax dollars to subsidize the handling of this waste.”

The version of the bill passed by the State House is slightly different than the version passed by the Senate. A special conference committee will work out the differences between the two, and then the bill will be sent to the Governor’s desk.

The Statesman has editorialized in favor of SB329. If you want to help TCE with their efforts to convince the Governor that this worthwhile bill, which passed nearly unanimously, should be signed, go here. I hope that in this case it’s the second time that’s the charm.

Computer recycling

As a state, we do a pretty lousy job of recycling old computers and computer components.

Texas ranks last in recycling computer parts among states that require manufacturers to take back their electronics, according to a report by an Austin environmental group that tries to keep computers and other electronics from landfills.

The report, by Texas Campaign for the Environment, compared recycling on a per capita basis in Texas with other states that have “computer takeback programs.” Under the Texas takeback law, computer manufacturers doing business in Texas must provide individuals and home businesses with free recycling options for used desktops, laptops and monitors.

Computers contain components with lead, mercury and other harmful materials. Environmentalists say burying computers in landfills or burning them in incinerators is unsafe.

[…]

In 2009, computer manufacturers in Texas recovered a total of 15.2 million pounds of used electronics for recycling and reuse, or about 0.62 pounds per capita, according to the report. Minnesota, by contrast, had an estimated collection rate of 2.78 pounds of computers per capita in the first year of its takeback law. Manufacturers in Minnesota face a fine if they fail to collect a percentage of the pounds they sold, according to Schneider.

The bright spot in Texas might be Dell Inc., which is responsible for about 85 percent of the computer recycling in Texas and provides convenient spots for consumers to drop off their computers, according to the report.

An executive summary of the report is here, and the full report is here (PDF). I recall that the last time I had a computer to recycle, which was before the Take Back law was passed, I took it to the Westpark recycling center. I asked if that would have been counted in these stats. This was the answer I got from Zac Trahan with Texas Campaign for the Environment:

Nope, this report is only measuring the manufacturer-based recycling results for last year. So why aren’t manufacturers responsible for recycling computers taken to Westpark and other local government drop-off locations? During the legislative session we argued for that exact provision, but to no avail. We’re hoping the City of Houston, and many other local governments, will join us in pressing state lawmakers to amend the law to fix this and many other shortcomings; if we’re successful the answer to your question will be yes in 2012. After all, cities and counties shouldn’t be paying to recycle electronics — the manufacturers should.

Seems reasonable to me. Anything that can boost recycling is worth pursuing. Hair Balls has more, and the TCE’s press release is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Kirk Watson on the vetoes

State Sen. Kirk Watson gives his view of Governor Perry’s vetoes. As he was one of the biggest victims of Perry’s pen, he had a lot to complain about. Among the bills he discusses is one I hadn’t been aware of:

Bafflingly, the Governor also vetoed a bill that would have protected Texans from those who make money unfairly or deceptively selling annuities. Not one legislator, at any stage of the process and in either the House or Senate, voted against the bill.

In his veto statement, the Governor is clearly more worried about the insurance companies and agents than the victims themselves. Given the legislature’s inability to pass even basic consumer protections this session, insurance ratepayers are rightly wondering if they’ll ever get a break under this leadership.

Here’s that veto statement. I daresay you can add that to the list of campaign issues for 2010. Watson also sounds a now-quite familiar complaint:

The veto list also includes five bills that I authored or sponsored. All of them passed unanimously or nearly unanimously through the legislature. And I had no sense during the session, despite pretty frequent contacts with the Governor’s office and staff, that he was concerned about them enough to just kill them. (In fact, I was affirmatively assured he would NOT veto one that he did.)

Watson joins Rep. Garnet Coleman and Texas Campaign for the Environment Director Robin Schneider in claiming that Perry vetoed bills that his staff had assured them he’d sign. I don’t recall people making a similar charge after previous legislative sessions – am I remembering incorrectly, or is this really something unusual? Regardless, I have to ask again: How can you work with a guy whose staffers don’t give you honest feedback?

Anyway. If Watson runs for Governor, as his colleague Sen. Van de Putte thinks he should, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore these themes in greater detail. So far, he’s non-committal, and I daresay he will continue to be until after the upcoming special session is over. Which I hope will be soon.

Once more with the vetoes

Governor Perry explains why he vetoed legislation to improve ethics in Harris County.

“I was never for that bill. Now, there may have been some people on my staff who were of a different mind,” Perry said, responding to a reporter’s question after a campaign event. “If we want to pass a statewide ethics law that deals with cities and counties, then let’s get together during the interim and develop that bill.”

Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, had said the GOP governor’s office told him Friday that Perry would bless the bill, then changed course.

Putting aside the question of the bill’s constitutionality – I’m still dubious of the Governor’s claim – isn’t it a problem when his staffers misrepresent his position like this? At the very least, there was a failure to communicate somewhere along the line. And it appears that it affected more than one bill.

No one likes a bill they worked hard on to die, but there’s particular fury in the environmental community today that Gov. Rick Perry killed House Bill 821, the famous zombie TV recycling legislation. “Perry had no good reason to veto this bill,” Texas Campaign for the Environment Director Robin Schneider said.

[…]

Schneider is particularly frustrated because Perry struck the bill down even though it had wide-spread support (including big industry names like GE, Thomson, Philips and the TechAmerica trade associatiom) that almost exactly mirrored the consensus-backing of the 2007 session’s computer recycling bill. “This bill uses the free market to let the companies come up with their recycling plans, and the fees were modest,” she lamented.

More importantly, Perry’s staff told her he was fine with it – right up to the point he vetoed it.

How many other bills were victimized by bad information from the Governor’s office? This is ridiculous. And I’d still like to know what Ed Emmett thinks about the death of the Harris County bill. Guess I’ll have to call and ask him myself.

Meanwhile, the AusChron looks at vetoes by the number, and determines that Democratic and bipartisan bills were more likely to be killed than Republican bills, and bills from urban areas were killed more often than rural ones. Neither of these observations should come as a surprise.