The city's shimmering skyline may wear the label of the world's energy capital, but deep in Houston's Dumpsters lies a less glamorous superlative: It is the worst recycler among the United States' 30 largest cities.
Houston recycles just 2.6 percent of its total waste, according to a study this year by Waste News, a trade magazine. By comparison, San Francisco and New York recycle 69 percent and 34 percent of their waste respectively. Moreover, 25,000 Houston residents have been waiting as long as 10 years to get recycling bins from the city.
Environmental advocates are pleading for municipal intervention. And some small improvements -- an organic waste program, for one -- are expected soon.
But city officials say real progress will be hard to come by. Landfill costs here are cheap. The city's sprawling, no-zoning layout makes collection expensive, and there is little public support for the kind of effort it takes to sort glass, paper and plastics. And there appears to be even less for placing fees on excess trash.
"We have an independent streak that rebels against mandates or anything that seems trendy or hyped up," said Mayor Bill White, who favors expanding the city's recycling efforts. "Houstonians are skeptical of anything that appears to be oversold or exaggerated. But Houstonians can change, and change fast."
Private businesses, like office towers, apartment complexes, and restaurants, are responsible for their own garbage, although advocates of recycling are pleading with the city to regulate them. Commercial recyclers say that despite a recent increase in public interest, their services remain a tough sell.
Mayor White, a Democrat who has consistently crusaded for environmental initiatives, said that a lack of progress on recycling was among his biggest disappointments and that the situation merited "radical changes," like the organic yard waste program that he says will increase the city's recycling rate to 20 percent by 2010. The national average is 32 percent.
Mayor White, who served as deputy secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton, stopped short, however, of calling for mandated recycling or charging citizens for excess garbage.
Highlighting the sensitivity to such taxes, last year the City Council considered imposing a mandatory $3.50 monthly environment fee for every single-family home. It was negotiated to a voluntary $2.25 charge and eventually dropped entirely because of fierce opposition, city officials said.
There is still time in his tenure for Mayor White to move the ball a little bit farther forward, and build on the modest gains we have seen on recycling. But I don't think anything significant will happen until after the next Mayor is sworn in. I sincerely hope this is a big part of the 2009 campaign.Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 30, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston