September 14, 2005
Reviving recycling

This is a bummer.

Though the number of homes afforded curbside pickup has increased steadily since 1990 to more than 160,000 half of the residences in the city too few take advantage, officials say. And Houston isn't alone. Some cities across the country have seen participation in curbside recycling plateau for a variety of reasons.

In Houston, recycling has dropped more than 13 percent in recent years from 11,770 tons in 2001 to 10,210 in fiscal 2005. That means the program costs the city too much money, while not doing enough to preserve natural resources, energy and landfill space and create jobs.

The city spent $1.3 million in the last fiscal year, including roughly $200,000 in fuel costs, to send collectors across the city to collect recyclables even to neighborhoods where few participate. Yet the program only recovered about $855,000 by reducing landfill costs and selling the material.

"It is a loser right now, and it shouldn't be," said Elena Marks, who handles environmental and health policy for Mayor Bill White. "Our goal is to get it to break even, and ideally it should make money if you recycle enough material."

Recycling is something I do as a matter of habit. When the city stopped collecting glass, I started taking mine to a dropoff point (there's one at Center and Harvard, a mile or so from where I live). I recognize that that's a bigger time commitment than most people can make, but I just don't understand the reluctance to toss cans and plastic containers in a separate bin for curbside pickup. Why add to landfills when you don't have to? It makes no sense to me.

People who study the matter say a leading factor in the decline, in Houston and some other cities, is that the novelty of recycling that fueled its boom more than a decade ago no longer compels residents to voluntarily separate their trash and tote heavy bins. Another issue is that governments haven't done enough to remind residents of the benefits.

"Recycling rates throughout the country are flat, to slightly down," said Jerry Powell, owner/editor of Resource Recycling, a trade magazine. "It's fairly easy to not take part if you're not educated of the reasons. It slips off the radar screen."

Marks said the mayor wants to spend about $600,000 to rebuild the program here. The effort includes hiring someone to coordinate an education campaign, lost years ago to budget cuts, which could involve public-service announcements. The money also will fund a study to identify precisely how many people participate.


Besides civic virtue, there isn't much incentive to recycle, officials say. Unlike California, Texas doesn't set mandatory goals for the amounts of recyclables that must be diverted from landfills. And unlike New York City's, Houston's program is voluntary.

June Wright, whose sister lives in New York, said she is one of the few residents on her block who recycles regularly, and places her bin in the street to make sure the recycling drivers see it. She doesn't know why more of her neighbors don't get involved.

"It's good for the environment. It's good for the economy. And it gets the trash out of my house," she said.

I hope it's just a matter of education. Putting it in terms of being good financial sense ought to help, along with maybe a little civic pride. Houston is looking at how other cities have dealt with this. I hope we can figure it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 14, 2005 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

I still put things out and wish there was more I could recycle.

No plastic bags, only 1 & 2 plastic whereas most of the plastic I get is 4 and 6. No glass. No metal cans - aluminum is 47 cents a pound now. The list goes on and on.

Houston might look at Crockett. There, your trash isn't picked up unless you recycle.

Posted by: Charles M on September 14, 2005 11:42 AM

Forget about voluntary. The way to make it happen is to provide ECONOMIC incentives for residents to recycle.

How does one accomplish this? Simple, by providing metered trash collection. The more you throw away the more you pay.

My parents live in Salem, Oregon where this is done. Residents of salem have a graduated scale for garbage cans. There are three or four different sizes of garbage cans that you can pick from. My parents use the smallest and cheapest and it is really very small and will only hold about three kitchen bags full of garbage. The only way my parents can make it work is to religiously pull out all their recyclables for free curbside pickup. Walking around Salem on trash day you can see that quite a few people chose to go with the tiniest trash can option and are forced to recycle and compost to make it work.

If the price difference between the small and largest cans is quite large then a lot of people will recycle just for the cost savings.

Posted by: Kent on September 14, 2005 2:37 PM

Yeah, I agree with both of the comments. Ditto on the glass and plastic too. I seem to remember that Whole foods or one of those stores takes plastic bags...or maybe that's just in Austin? One way to cut back on plastic bags is to get some grocery totes of your own. I have about 5. They have velcro at the top and can hold more than the paper or plastic bags. I just keep them in the car in case I need to stop by the grocery store. Sometimes I forget to bring them in so I try and reward myself with a candy bar or soda when I remember.

Posted by: Katie on September 14, 2005 3:23 PM

Central Market also takes plastic bags.

With trash cans that could accomodate a baby elephant, there is really no incentive to recycle. Contrast with my family's SF Bay Area situation, 3 trash cans: 1 for organics, 1 (houston-sized) for recyclables, and 1 for trash that has to be 1/4 the size of the houston cans.

I take care of my own recycling, but after reading this, I will request a bin and use it as a way of supporting the city's collection.

Posted by: Tracy on September 14, 2005 6:14 PM

IIRC, recycling in San Jose, where we used to live, really picked up when the city invested in a new system that separated all the stuff, meaning people could just dump all the recyclables in one container. We had two trash cans -- one for recyclables, one for trash. Both were on wheels and easy to put by the curb. It worked pretty well.

Our neighborhood has private trash collection, which is nice because it means they pick up at our back door, but, as a neighborhood, people have been unwilling to shell out the extra money it would cost to recycle. I know a few of my neighbors take their stuff to the local recycling facilities, but most don't.

I know that a lot of people argue that it's not cost-effective to recycle. Regardless of whether it is or not, I think there's another issue involved, and that's landfill use and the fact that any time you can recycle something, it means new resources don't have to be used to create another product. And that's a good thing.

Posted by: Sue on September 15, 2005 7:52 AM

Our neighborhood actually put it to a vote as to whether or not to get recycling totes for the community.

Unfortunately the wording of the ballot made it impossible for the vote to pass, as they indicated that there would need to be >50% of those polled voting in the affirmative, rather than >50% of those responding.

As you might expect, we were pretty pissed with the outcome.

Posted by: blurker gone bad on September 15, 2005 12:23 PM

Does anyone know where we can recycle #5 plastic containers????

Posted by: rachel buchman on November 26, 2005 2:13 PM

It seems that Fort Bend County has a recycling program for ALL plastics. If you live close to that county it might be reasonable to go there.

BTW HEB on Westmeimer and Chimey Rock (?) recycles plastic bags too.

Posted by: Hungrygirl on January 9, 2006 11:59 AM

Is there anyplace in Houston that recycles styrofoam ??? and any other suggestions on where to go for #5 and #6 plastic recycling ???

Posted by: michelle on January 26, 2006 8:22 PM

I'm also looking for plastic recycling in Houston. Any suggestions as to where I can drop off plastics #3 #4 #5 #6 or #7 ? mentioned Fort Bend Co. accepts ALL plastics. Do you have any more info, all I've found on their site is that they take 1's & 2's?

Posted by: MMS on June 8, 2006 11:07 PM