July 21, 2008
Incentivizing recycling

Though there's been some recent good news on the recycling front, the city of Houston still has a long way to go to bring its program up to an acceptable level, which has been having problems for years now.

"Everything that comes out of your home or office is really a material stream that can be recycled or composted or even re-used," says Darryl Lambert, who manages the AbitibiBowater sorting center where Houston sends its recyclables. "There's very little true, true waste."

That may be, but that does not mean Houston recycles as much as it could. Some residents blame the city's modestly scaled curbside program, which offers residents no financial incentive to recycle and serves only 47 percent of the 342,000 homes that get public trash service. But the city says that more recycling companies need to come to Houston, build processing centers, and ramp up the market for used goods.

"Houston is a virtual gold mine of recyclable materials; it's just a matter of companies mining that material," said Harry Hayes, solid waste director.

"You need to build it, and I think the material will flow," Hayes added.

Recycling surveys are notoriously fuzzy, relying on self-reports based on inconsistent measures. But one estimate puts Houston's rate at a dismal 2 percent of all municipal solid waste -- the nonindustrial and nonconstruction waste generated by homes, schools and businesses. The city claims it is slightly higher, if you count efforts in more than 50 city buildings, but officials acknowledge that recycling is the city's "growth opportunity."

"I think our current levels of recycling are unacceptable, and we need to do more," Mayor Bill White said recently.

The city is on track to push its recycling rate toward 20 percent, White said.


Major sectors of the city -- the Medical Center, downtown skyscrapers and apartment buildings -- manage their own waste and aren't mandated by the city. Other cities, like New York and Portland, Ore., require businesses and private haulers to do some recycling, but Houston leaves it up to them.

"Nobody is prevented from doing any of this," White says.

Critics say that approach, based on volunteerism and education, is not enough.

"You are not going to educate the majority of people into recycling," says Leo Gold, a financial adviser who also hosts a talk show on KPFT-FM (90.1). "The others have to be induced."

"It took $4-a-gallon gasoline for people to get fuel-efficient automobiles, and it's going to take creative pricing to get people to do recycling," Gold added.

Gold recently presented a petition with specific suggestions for Houston to adopt regarding waste management and recycling. While I strongly agree with his list of proposals, I disagree on the matter of educating people about recycling. I think a lot of people don't give the matter much thought, and have no idea about the costs of landfills or the real need to recycle more. I've advocated for this before and I'll say it again: I think a big PR campaign, modeled along the lines of the classic "Don't Mess With Texas" anti-littering program, would go a long way towards changing attitudes and raising participation rates. That should be done in concert with a campaign to get business centers to promote recycling on their properties. This is low-hanging fruit, and will help to get people into the habit and mindset that things like aluminum cans and plastic bottles do not belong in the trash can. I truly believe this is a necessary first step, and that it can be achieved relatively easily.

Now there's no reason you can't also do things like "pay to throw", where trash fees are based in part on the size of your receptacle. Multiple approaches should be taken, and modified as needed if something isn't working. This is a big opportunity for Houston to save money and be a little greener. I hope someone with a little ambition steps up and takes the lead on this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 21, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston

I guess I'm a cynic when it comes to PR. Nothing gets the point across more than a small trash can. In SF, where 70% of disposable waste is recycled, the trash cans are so small they are cute. The recycling container is the size of the Houston trash cans.
A cheap way for Houston to start would be to flip the trash/recycling schedules - ie, pick up recycling every week, and trash only every other week.

Posted by: TK on July 21, 2008 12:22 PM
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