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Zero Waste Houston

Trash fee to pay for Prop B?

Hard pass.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston City Councilman Dwight Boykins on Thursday proposed charging property owners a monthly garbage collection fee to finance raises for firefighters while avoiding job cuts for other city staff.

Under the proposal, most Houston homeowners would be charged a flat, monthly fee between $25 and $40 to help the city absorb the cost of raises for firefighters mandated by the pay parity charter amendment approved by voters last month.

Unveiled at a Thursday press conference, Boykins’ proposal comes amid a legal challenge by the city over the constitutionality of Proposition B, the charter amendment granting firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding rank and experience. The amendment was approved last month by 59 percent of voters.

“I believe the issue of pay parity was settled at the ballot box,” Boykins wrote in a Thursday letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner and his colleagues on council. “As elected leaders, our primary mission is to settle on an appropriate and responsible way forward. To this end, I am convinced that introducing a garbage collection fee is the most plausible plan to provide firefighters a pay raise while ensuring that no city worker loses their job.”

Turner’s office issued a statement in which the mayor said he was opposed to the idea: “Council Member Boykins and the Firefighters Association’s proposal to enact a $25 monthly garbage collection fee to pay for a firefighter’s 29% pay raise, underscores what I have been saying for months. The City cannot afford Proposition B. This measure will cost the city more than $100 million each fiscal year. I will not support forcing Houston homeowners to pay a costly new tax on trash collection to pay for firefighters’ salaries.”

Look, I support the concept of a trash fee. I just want that fee to apply to the function of collecting and managing the city’s waste. More curbside recycling, including plastic bags, curbside compost collection – there are lots of things that other cities that have trash fees do with them. Propose this as part of a zero waste plan, I’ll shill for it all day long. This is not a good use for a trash fee. Nice try, but no.

The long range plan for municipal waste

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

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

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

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.

Rest of the single stream bins to be distributed

All Houston homes will be covered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

Chron on One Bin

The Chronicle is ambivalent about the city’s One Bin for All proposal.

Details of the One Bin For All recycling proposal aren’t even solid yet, but groups like the Sierra Club have already started to line up against it. This gut rejection seems misguided, but people should have a healthy skepticism of this relatively untested new plan.

The premise of One Bin is that, instead of people sorting recycling at home, recyclable material can be sorted out of garbage en masse at centralized locations through a mix of manpower and mechanized processes. It isn’t as effective as sorting by hand, but it gets more recyclables in the end because it handles the entirety of the city’s garbage rather than whatever people decide to sort at home.

The problem with this method, according to some environmentalist advocates, is that it removes the responsibility of recycling and cultivates a culture of waste. Out of sight, out of mind.

[…]

In a meeting with the Chronicle Editorial Board, the city’s Sustainability Director, Laura Spanjian, said the entire plan is supposed to be cost neutral, keeping the city’s trash budget essentially the same. A private contractor will design, build and operate the One Bin plant, in exchange for a contract on the city’s garbage. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and Houston won’t be stuck with the bill – unlike when a bond-funded trash incinerator project drove the city of Harrisburg, Pa., into bankruptcy.

Still, dumping garbage is cheap in Texas, and it seems inevitable that the price the city pays on each ton will increase, despite claims otherwise. The real cost offset comes from One Bin’s one bin, meaning that the city only needs one truck instead of two for garbage and recycling. Slimming down unnecessary city operations is healthy for the long-term budget.

Conservative skepticism still leads to an arched eyebrow. Houston government shouldn’t be the testing ground for new technology, and a few more years of experience in other cities could help refine the process. The Montgomery plant does not accept items such as kitty litter and dirty diapers, which are supposed to be tossed in a separate container. Their experience should lead Houstonians to worry whether we’ll just end up with a One Bin for (Almost) All.

As we know, the city received five proposals in July. We don’t know a whole lot about them just yet, but I expect we’ll hear more soon. The Chron lists three concerns about One Bin – cost, effectiveness, and the “out of sight, out of mind” problem – but they didn’t mention the two biggest ones that opponents have harped on. One is the possibility/likelihood that some amount of waste will be incinerated, and the other is that the so-called “dirty MRFs” will have less value as recyclable material than they would as separated materials. The city strongly disputes these arguments, and I’m not sure why the Chron didn’t at least mention any of that. I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to arbitrate that. I’m still waiting on a response from Laura Spanjian to what Zero Waste Houston has been saying, some of which was in that post of mine linked to above. I would love for this to work and I hope that the latest generation of technology can make it work, but it remains to be seen what has been proposed.

One Bin For All RFPs

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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