August 02, 2008
Use it or lose it time for curbside recycling

There's been talk for a long time now that neighborhoods that have poor participation rates with curbside recycling might lose the service, and now that day of reckoning is at hand.

Harry Hayes, the city's solid waste director, recently sent letters to residents in 43 Houston neighborhoods, threatening to stop collecting their recyclables.

The roughly 23,000 households were told that they must improve their participation rates to prove that servicing their neighborhoods is worth the cost, particularly in light of high diesel fuel prices.

Participation in those neighborhoods, city officials say, has fallen below 10 percent, with some as low as 2 percent. Other areas see as high as 70 percent participation, according to a 2006 survey.

"In too many cases, the department's trucks must drive through entire neighborhoods to collect only a few bins," Hayes wrote in the letter to residents. "Those neighborhoods that do not improve their set-out rates will be dropped from the program at the end of this calendar year."

Hayes' department offers curbside service to about 160,000 households, or about 40 percent of Houstonians who get city trash service.

Given that the city does not offer curbside recycling service to all neighborhoods, that makes sense and is a long time coming. Of course, it would be vastly preferable to have recycling everywhere, with a better level of participation than what we have now, and that needs to be the long-term goal. But until we can get there, we should make sure that we're maximizing the use of the service in the limited places we have it. Who knows, maybe absence will make the heart grow fonder for those neighborhoods.

The city is only taking this step after a public relations campaign called Go Green Houston failed to get those neighborhoods and others to improve more dramatically.


City Councilwoman Wanda Adams, a former solid waste department administrative staffer and a strong recycling advocate, said she is concerned some Houstonians may lose the service. She said the department should focus more on educating people to participate.

Adams suggested more public-service announcements, events at schools and more visible promotion. She also wants a special division focused solely on recycling.

"When you have a breakdown in education and no one is focusing on the recycling program, participation rates will drop," she said. "There has to be a consistency in education."

I don't know what the Go Green Houston campaign entailed, so I can't say why it wasn't more successful, but I agree with Council Member Adams that educating the public about the need for recycling has to be a big part of this. Of course, there are plenty of things the city could do to force people to reassess and hopefully change their behavior, from changing the respective sizes of the garbage cans and recycle bins to enacting a pay-as-you-throw program, among others. And I still believe that a partnership with businesses, who are not a part of the city's recycling efforts at all, would be a huge help. At my office, we used to have separate bins for aluminum cans and trash, but it hardly seemed to matter - any time I looked in them, I saw roughly equal amounts of trash and cans in each. They weren't well marked, and there was never any communication at the corporate level informing people about these bins. We don't even have such bins on my floor now; any time I have a can of soda or a bottle of water at work, I bring the empties home to toss into my bin. Yet people don't seem to have any problems tossing waste paper into clearly-marked recycling bins in the copy/print rooms. It's not that people won't recycle, it's that they need to be aware of it, and it needs to be apparent to them where to put recyclables. The potential for gain here is enormous if it's done right.

The Chron editorializes about this today.

Less service, higher cost," was the damning refrain last year when City Council considered imposing a garbage collection fee.

The $42 annual fee per household would have raised as much as $19 million for recycling technology and other environmental projects. But the plan was quickly crushed.

By backing down, council helped seal Houston's place as the only major U.S city in which residents can generate outsized mountains of household waste and -- without further accountability -- somehow have it disappear. Council needs to revisit the collection plan, which all other American cities know is the cost of keeping solid waste under control.

Like Houston, other U.S. cities collect property taxes. Yet Houston might be alone in wholly depending on its general fund -- which pays for fire and police protection -- to bear the cost of garbage pickup.

There's some dispute about the figures, but a recent report by the trade newspaper Waste News alleges our city is the worst nationwide at managing its own garbage.


[C]ity leaders and taxpayers both bear responsibility for Houston's environment. Recycling isn't just some feel-good, millennialist fad. It shrinks the noxious landfills that no one wants in their backyards. It slashes the environmental and financial cost of creating plastic, glass and paper products.

It also forces households to be mindful of the waste stream they churn out every day. All that trash has to go somewhere. Someone has to pick it up, transport it and dispose of it.

Most Americans have got the hang of this notion. Austin, for example, charges a separate garbage fee. And its municipal trash cans hold 30 gallons of trash. Create more trash than that, and you pay extra for someone to dispose of it. Only in Houston do trash cans hold 90 gallons, to be emptied at no extra cost.

The obvious answer is instituting a separate trash-collection fee. But if "Houston culture" truly cannot muster the civic responsibility for its trash that every other city accepts, it's up to city leaders to find alternatives.

Many would protest at first, but genuine leaders, starting with Mayor White, should be able to explain and stand firm on questions of sound municipal management.

There's no question that the whiners will be out in force at any suggestion that the cost of some service might not be the same forever. But the case for this is abundantly clear, and really ought to be a straightforward pitch for the city to make. Such a program can always be designed so that there is no charge for a household that generates a minimal amount of trash and/or a high level of recyclables. What's needed now is the will to shrug off the naysayers and do what's right. We're at least talking about it. Let's take the next step and do it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 02, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston

** There's no question that the whiners will be out in force at any suggestion that the cost of some service might not be the same forever. **

And the blockquoters otherwise known as The Future might have an opinion, one day, after they are done stating they don't know what to think or that they will see what happens. Or they might not. *shrug*

Posted by: Kevin Whited on August 2, 2008 8:45 PM

You're so cute when you're jealous.

Seriously. For a guy who does little more than leave passive-aggressive hit and run comments, and who has mentioned that Texas Monthly thing about ten times as often as I have, you can dish it out, but you sure can't take it.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on August 2, 2008 10:21 PM
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