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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.

It’s past time for a garbage fee

Yes, this.

For years, Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes has suggested the city implement a garbage fee to expand curbside recycling and pay for other initiatives. And for years, Mayor Annise Parker has demurred.

Now, with a looming budget deficit that could force widespread layoffs and cuts to services, the idea may see serious discussion at the council table for the first time.

Though Parker has not endorsed any particular path, she acknowledges a garbage fee is among the most important of the dozens of ideas officials are considering as they try to close a $150 million budget gap by next summer.

[…]

For Hayes’ part, he said he has “been like the North Star on this,” pushing roughly the same fee for the same reasons for six years, always reminding council members that Houston is one of the only major cities in the country, and the only one in Texas, without a garbage fee.

“I have consistently stated the same things to both mayors, who have both been huge recycling advocates, and the same thing to all the council members,” Hayes said. “If you’re asking me what to do and I’m your appointed and confirmed expert, here’s what we should do as a best practice in this particular city business.”

The fee Hayes has pitched – $3.76 a month or $45.12 per home, per year – would ensure recycling trucks and containers are replaced on time and without taking on too much debt, would deploy officers to better enforce rules against illegal dumping, and would add neighborhood depository sites.

Hayes said any broader proposal in line with what other Texas cities charge would be designed to generate enough revenue to cover his department’s $76 million budget, removing waste operations from the tax-supported general fund entirely. Such a fee in Houston, Hayes said, would be $15 to $20 a month per home, or $180 to $240 a year.

Using fees for 96-gallon bins, the type Houston distributes, Dallas charges residents about $21.92 a month, San Antonio $17.69 to $19.93, Fort Worth $22.75, Austin $33.50 and El Paso $16. Austin also levies a monthly $6.65 fee that funds other waste operations.

I’ve supported the idea of a garbage fee for some time now. The city would have been able to roll out the single-stream recycling bins a lot sooner with a dedicated fee, instead of having to wait till it had collected enough money from the program itself to finance the purchase of the equipment. How much better it would have been to deal with this back in one of the good budget years when the focus could have been on the improved service that a garbage fee would have meant instead of now when it’s all wrapped up in a deficit-reduction veneer.

The oddball argument was unconvincing to Councilman C.O. Bradford.

“When you look at business magazines, trade publications, economic forecasts, Houston is separate,” he said. “Houston is doing much better than those other cities because we do things differently. We don’t have to do it just because other cities are doing it.”

Councilwoman Ellen Cohen said an informal survey of civic clubs in her district last year showed general support for the $3.76 monthly fee.

“People were willing to consider that,” she said. “For me, we have serious issues ahead and I think everything should be on the table for the purpose of talking about it.”

Dwight Boykins said he is supportive of the garbage fee concept, but is far more comfortable with the lower amount than leaving a $15 to $20 monthly fee in place indefinitely, particularly for low-income residents.

Councilmen Larry Green and Jerry Davis are against the idea, saying constituent surveys have found more opposed than in favor.

All due respect, but the “Houston exceptionalism” argument is hooey. Sometimes, when you’re the only one not doing what everyone else is doing, you’re the one that’s doing it wrong. I get where CMs Green and Davis are coming from, but one of the things that a garbage fee can help finance is better surveillance and enforcement of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem in District B. I hope the potential benefit of this can be made clear – perhaps Director Hayes could put together a short presentation detailing some of the dumping hotspots that would be first in line for enhanced attention with a garbage fee – before any vote is taken.

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.

Another expansion of single stream recycling

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker and Harry J. Hayes, Director of the Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD), are pleased to announce the addition of 62,000 to the City’s popular automated curbside recycling program. As part of the expansion, residents in neighborhoods throughout Houston will receive a new 96-gallon green automated cart similar to the black automated garbage cart they already have. The green carts will take paper, plastics, metals and glass out of the waste stream.

“Once again, we are happy to announce more homes are being added to the Automated Recycling Program”, said Mayor Parker. “This expansion moves us closer to our goal of having all City-serviced homes on the program by the end of 2015. This is a long overdue goal that was established by the Solid Waste Task Force that I chaired back in 2006 – 2007. Director Hayes and his team are to be commended for their hard work.”

“This 62,000 home expansion brings our total homes covered to over 273,000, which is more than 72% of all homes directly serviced by the department,” said Director Hayes. “We’re excited to increase opportunities for our residents to recycle, which is something they want to do.”

Cart delivery will begin this week, with the first collection occurring the week of June 23rd.

Recyclable items that can be placed in the containers include: newspapers, magazines, office paper, junk mail, cardboard, paperboard, paper bags, glass bottles and jars, aluminum cans, tin and steel cans and plastics 1 – 5 and 7.

For areas included in the expansion, visit the Solid Waste Management Department web site at www.houstonsolidwaste.org and go to the section titled “Automated Curbside Recycling Program Expanded to 62,000 Homes” and follow the links.

Here’s the link to that map. For my neck of the woods, this includes a sizable chunk of the Heights – the area bounded by 11th Street, Yale, North Shepherd, and Loop 601 – that had been previously left out, as well as Timbergrove and the area east of I-45 south of Moody Park. I know a lot of people who are going to look at this map and start doing the happy dance. If you’re inside the Loop, other than a few areas in the Third Ward, you will have single stream as of June 23 if you don’t already. Since we all agree that more single stream recycling means more households participating in curbside recycling, this is great news all around. Hopefully by next year, the remaining few places that still don’t have the big green bins will get them.

Melanie Scruggs: Ways Houston can increase its recycling rate

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

Houston has significantly improved its recycling rate by expanding single-stream recycling, or the “big, green bins.” While the smaller, 18-gallon green boxes only had a participation rate of 22%, the larger recycling bins are up to 62% recycling participation since the larger bins are a better, more convenient design and they accept more materials.

Following successful models of cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Toronto, Dallas and Austin, Houston can improve its recycling rate beyond our current 6% or next year’s expected 12% by implementing education programs and incentives.

ScruggsImage1_LargeGreenBin

It all starts with consistent programs and education

First and foremost, all homes serviced by the City’s waste services need to have the same, consistent recycling program. Right now, some neighborhoods have dual stream while others have single-stream; some neighborhoods recycle glass separately and others do not. Inconsistent recycling services unnecessarily complicates City-wide public education and messaging, makes it more difficult to teach communities how to recycle and can cause people to give up on recycling properly. Consistent, single-stream recycling where all recyclables go in one container separate from trash really does simplify the process.

Next, we need consistent promotion and education to explain what items go in the recycling bins. Recycling messages may take a plethora of forms: bus signs, billboards, bill inserts, social media, speaking in neighborhood meetings and even in schools. Speaking to elementary school students is one of the most effective recycling education methods, since kids are great at teaching their parents how to recycle. This is especially true in multi-lingual homes or in homes where parents have not recycled previously. Teaching youngsters responsible, environmentally conscious behaviors such as recycling will hopefully also encourage them to be sensitive to the environment throughout their lives and future careers.

ScruggsImage2_RecycleRight

Broadly speaking, recycling media and messaging should be tailored to reach populations with different interests and values. Environmentalists are going to be compelled when you say it is good for the environment, but that’s not everybody—maybe not even most people in Houston. The City may explain how recycling creates jobs, saves tax dollars in the long run and teaches resource conservation to connect with one group; explaining how recycling means less dumping on environmental justice communities connects to another. We live in an era where mass communication can be tailored to very specific audiences. Goodness knows I saw Mayor Annise Parker’s campaign ads all over my internet; surely the City can promote recycling that effectively.

At the individual or neighborhood level, stickers on recycling bins and door-to-door communication have been proven highly effective in cities like San Francisco, where they divert 80% of waste from landfills. Some cities have also appointed neighborhood “block leaders” where neighbors encourage each other to recycle properly and help distribute recycling instructions and media. Council member Bradford once suggested that the City create some kind of recycling competition between neighborhoods and invent rewards for neighborhoods that recycle the most.

Door-to-door visits may also target areas with low recycling participation or high contamination. City employees may use stickers and notes on recycling bins to inform people what they are doing right or what needs improvement. Door-to-door visitors are very effective since they can take some time to explain what items are recyclable in the City’s recycling program, what isn’t, why it is important and make sure residents understand the incentives in place.

Incentives help to improve recycling rates

All waste services have a cost, but not all communities have waste fees or a designated monthly charge to fund trash, compost and recycling services. Some cities pay for waste disposal from general funds and are able to achieve high recycling rates through consistence services and promotion. Toronto, for example, has no waste fee and boasts 49% diversion from landfills—about 3 times that of Houston. Part of Toronto’s success is likely due to their curbside food waste collection and a commitment to strong education programs. Monthly charge-based incentives do create powerful economic incentives to increase recycling, however, and have proven successful in other cities.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Unit-based or “SMaRT (Save Money and Reduce Trash)” pricing allows customers to pay less if they recycle more. While some communities may determine the amount through metering, where each load of trash set out at the curb is weighed, this is unnecessary and often unpopular. An easier solution is to offer different sized trash cans—24 gallon, 36 gallon, 64 gallon and 96 gallon—and to charge customers more for bigger cans, incentivizing waste reduction as well as recycling. In general unit-based pricing can reduce waste disposal by up to 50% and increase recycling by up to 40%. EPA estimates that PAYT policies in 2006—which covered only 25% of the US population—diverted about 6.5 million tons of waste which would have otherwise been thrown away. They estimated then that the policies reduced disposal by an average of 17%.

Mandatory curbside recycling and composting programs are controversial, but they are also very effective at incentivizing participation. Essentially these are ordinances which say that the City will not collect any waste if either recycling or composting are not also present, or if there is recycling or composting present in the waste. Customers are still free to self-haul their discards to a landfill and pay gate fees there, but City collection crews will not throw valuable commodities into the landfill themselves. Such policies are best implemented after all other incentives, education and programs have gone into effect to capture the last chunks of material after recycling, composting and other programs have become widely accepted.

Creating a City Wide Recycling Culture

Promoting recycling not just at home for homeowners, but also at apartments, condos, businesses, events and public spaces contributes to an overall recycling culture. If people don’t have recycling available until they move into a house, they are less accustomed to recycling and participation tends to be low. Consistent recycling programs at businesses, public spaces, tax-exempt institutions and schools also maximize potential job creation, revenue and conservation for the City.

Plenty of businesses take on voluntary recycling services or are interested in reducing waste in order to increase efficiencies and lower costs. Boeing and Mitsubishi for example have committed to Zero Waste to landfills and this is a growing trend in the business community. Voluntary efforts are important to lead the recycling culture, and recycling ordinances are also key to long term improvements in recycling outside of the City’s residential service area.

Note that some homeowner associations that have opted out of City waste services and in exchange for a refund or sponsorship program for private waste contracts. Houston could pass an ordinance requiring recycling in these opt-out neighborhoods or make it a condition of the grant that these neighborhoods have to provide single-stream recycling similar to what the City provides its customers.

Other aspects of a recycling culture include recruiting recycling-reliant industries, re-use centers, swap shops and salvage from bulky trash collection. Austin just started a promotional program to support local businesses that sell recycled products. Recycling is good for the environment and creates tens of thousands of jobs in our region; we should support manufacturers that use recycled content or re-use materials. Publicly committing to supporting the recycling industry will increase overall buy-in to recycling programs at home, work and play.

ScruggsImage4_PackagingWaste

In addition to recycling and compost, cities with a recycling culture are advocating for better product design. There is a nationally coordinated effort around container packaging, for instance, to eliminate non-recyclable packaging designs for certain products. Since our tax dollars pay for recycling and waste programs that dispose of millions of dollars’ worth of packaging every year, it makes sense that we should advocate for design that would lower the cost of recycling and disposal. This policy framework is called “extended producer responsibility” and aims to create economic incentives for producers to improve product design to achieve longer lifespans with greater durability and safety.

Long-term Zero Waste Goal

The big picture, long-term goal—90% diversion from landfills or higher—is often called Zero Waste. The Zero Waste International Alliance has developed the only peer-reviewed definition for the term:

Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

Note that this definition specifically excludes phased incineration technologies such as gasification, which has been proposed for the City of Houston’s “One bin for All” proposal. In practice, local and commercial Zero Waste standards vary with 90% diversion or higher being a common goal. Both Dallas and Austin have Zero Waste goals, and San Antonio has a short-term goal to divert 60% of its waste by 2020.

Recycling, composting, and waste reduction are all higher and better uses for these materials than incineration according to the EPA. Unlike unproven technologies like gasification of solid waste, Zero Waste relies on proven technologies such as separate recycling and organics collection. We hope that as soon as the City abandons its inkling toward gasifying our trash, we will see real leadership in establishing education programs and incentives to increase participation in the “big, green bins” recycling program, which is already showing success and fostering a culture of responsibility, unlike “One bin for all,” which fosters a culture of waste. Houston’s low recycling rate is a sign of opportunities we have yet to explore and provide to all residents. We believe the right services and education programs will yield successful results just like they have in other Cities, and set a positive example for other communities to follow.

Melanie Scruggs is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, a statewide, grassroots advocacy organization for waste and recycling issues. Melanie graduated from the Plan II Honors program at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012.

City issues One Bin RFPs

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker today announced the issuance of a Request for Proposals and creation of an advisory committee for the One Bin for All waste management and diversion project.

The City of Houston invites submittals from short-listed firms that participated in an earlier Request for Qualifications process.

“One Bin for All will revolutionize the way we handle trash, achieving high-volume recycling and waste diversion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, new jobs and lower operating costs,” said Mayor Parker. “We have reached another key milestone in this process and are eager to move forward as this technology has the potential to improve health and quality of life not only in Houston, but around the world.”

The City is seeking a public-private partnership that will significantly increase its overall waste diversion rate, create jobs, reduce expenses to the City, reduce emissions compared to current processes, and protect and educate local communities.

“The City’s One Bin concept is a pioneering program that strives to make recycling easier for citizens, which will make us more successful as well as reduce emissions and improve our environment,” said Rice University Professor Jim Blackburn. “Technology and innovation will have important roles in the changes that we as a society must make to recycle and reuse efficiently.”

“Mayor Parker and Houston are once again leading, and working smart and diligently to find state-of-the-art solutions to improve the quality of life of Houstonians,” said Houston Director for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Brian Yeoman. “Developing new tools that can be replicated to increase recycling and waste diversion, will help many cities who grapple with this same problem.”

The RFQ can be downloaded at http://purchasing.houstontx.gov/Bid_Display.aspx?id=T24905

Submissions are due July 12, 2014. A pre-proposal conference will be held on April 29, 2014.

In addition to the issuance of the RFP, Mayor Parker also announced the creation of a One Bin for All Advisory Committee. The panel will provide expertise to the City regarding financing, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental justice and outreach and education issues as the City moves forward to significantly increase its waste diversion. Advisory Committee members include:

Jim Blackburn – Partner, Blackburn & Carter; and Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University
Winifred Hamilton, Ph.D. – Director of Environmental Health, Baylor College of Medicine
Barry L. Lefer, Ph.D. – Associate Department Chair and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Houston
Jim Lester, Ph.D. – President, HARC
Cheryl Mergo – Sustainable Development Program Manager, H-GAC
Laurie Petersen – Sustainability Champion, NASA JSC
Lalita Sen, Ph.D. – Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy, Texas Southern University
Adrian Shelly, III – Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston
Alan Stein – President & CEO, A&E Interests
Jeff Taylor – Vice President, Freese and Nichols, Inc.

“Houston is advancing creative solutions and embracing new technologies to continue to improve our air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in areas such as waste operations,” said Barry Lefer, Associate Department Chair and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston. “For example, using anaerobic digestion to convert organics, including food, to fuel, is an important breakthrough concept for large scale waste diversion and methane reduction.”

Last year, Houston’s One Bin for All idea was one of the five winners in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire American cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life – and that ultimately can be shared with other cities to improve the well-being of the nation. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ mission is to ensure better, longer lives for the greatest number of people. Houston was selected as a Mayors Challenge winner out of a pool of over 300 applicant cities, based on four criteria: vision, ability to implement, potential for impact, and potential for replication. One Bin for All was also the first place winner of the Mayors Challenge Fan Favorite Selection.

For more information please visit www.houstontx.gov/onebinforall.

The RFQs were issued last June, and I noted recently that the city was expected to issue the RFPs this month. It remains the case that some environmental groups strongly oppose this approach – see Zero Waste Houston, put together by a coalition of enviro groups, for their argument. I reached out to Melanie Scruggs with the Texas Campaign for the Environment for a statement, and this is what she sent me:

Groups and individuals who oppose the One Bin for All proposal include the National Sierra Club CEO Michael Brune, Annie Leonard, Founder of the Story of Stuff Project, the local Sierra Club Houston Regional Group, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), the San Jacinto River Coalition, Houston Peace and Justice Center, Public Citizen TX, Texas Campaign for the Environment and thousands of Houstonians who have written letters or emailed City Council since last March. We all believe that commingling trash and recycling will lower real recycling rates and that bringing incineration technologies like gasification or pyrolysis to Houston or any other city will threaten public health, compete with recycling and waste reduction, and put the City of Houston and its taxpayers at financial risk.

While the City claims the public-private partnership will reduce costs to the City, the proposal clearly calls for tax incentives including 380 Agreements and tax-exempt financing that will lock the City into a decades-long public subsidy for technologies that have a horrendous track record of cost failures, emission violations and failures to produce energy. While the One Bin plant may produce a little over 100 jobs, expanding recycling to the entire City could produce thousands and thousands more if curbside composting is implemented. Real recycling and composting will do more to reduce greenhouse gases than incineration ever could, because incineration of recyclable materials means that raw materials will have to be extracted again. And yes, gasification and pyrolysis are incineration technologies according to the EPA, despite what the City’s public relations people want to think.

The announcement of the “Advisory Committee” has been made for PR purposes and raises more questions than hopes. What exactly is the Advisory Committee supposed to produce? Why were they not invited to participate during the RFQ process wherein the City heard from respondents about the technologies under consideration? None of the local groups who have voiced concerns about a One-Bin program been asked to serve on the Advisory Committee, and no one from the neighborhoods where this facility will be built has been invited either. It is also ineffective to evaluate “One Bin for All” in isolation while groups have proposed alternatives, including keeping recycling and trash separate, implementing organics recycling, creating new incentives and investing in education programs to boost participation.

The participation rates with recycling have been increasing since the City has started to switch to the “big, green bins” and we believe the “One Bin for All” will waste the progress Houston is currently making in real recycling. Without any investment in public education whatsoever, the participation rates have still increased from 22% to 62% with the big, green recycling bins simply because they are a better design. Far from “innovation,” what City Hall is proposing is a proven failure that will set real progress on waste reduction, recycling and sustainability back for years to come. Houston needs a long-term plan to eliminate waste at its source and provide universal recycling where we live, work and play, the way other cities in Texas and across the country are now doing. City Hall needs to abandon this terrible proposal that would turn our trash in to air pollution, harming the environment, our health and the recycling economy.

So there you have it. I will be very interested to see what kind of responses the RFP gets. What are your thoughts on this?

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on this.

SA City Council to begin the plastic bag debate

I look forward to seeing what direction they go.

plastic-bag

City staffers Wednesday plan to recommend to the City Council’s Governance Committee that San Antonio move forward with a ban on single-use plastic and paper bags.

The recommendation comes after vetting by the Solid Waste Management Department, which researched policies in other cities across the state and the nation.

The committee, led by Mayor Julián Castro, could direct David McCary, director of the waste management department, to present his recommendations to the full council. But it’s too soon to tell what the city’s governing body might do with the proposal.

“There has not yet been a robust discussion among council members on this issue,” Castro said. “We look forward to examining the staff’s analysis and going forward from there.”

The bag-ban proposal took flight in November when Councilman Cris Medina filed a request asking that his council colleagues consider a prohibition on single-use plastic bags.

[…]

During a February round-table meeting with retail business leaders, environmentalists and others, Medina directed McCary to recommend a single approach for the council to consider.

According to city documents, those possibilities are:

  • Allow the local business community to handle the issue on its own through education and outreach;
  • Establish a fee for all distributed single-use bags, both paper and plastic;
  • Ban all single-use plastic and paper carry-out bags;
  • Approve an ordinance requiring businesses to offer incentives for customer usage of reusable bags;
  • Maintain the status quo with a continued focus on outreach to the 340,000 customers of the waste management department and inform them of an Aug. 1 start date for the city’s plastic-bag recycling program.

See here and here for the background. As we know, the city of Dallas recently adopted a bag fee, which came on the heels of a request for an AG opinion on the legality of municipal bag laws. Assuming San Antonio takes some action – and I believe they will – then the focus may shift to Houston, since every other large city will have done something except for us. Mayor Parker has a lot on her plate, but I continue to believe this issue will come up here sooner or later.

Recycling cartons

More curbside recycling options.

Houstonians accustomed to throwing out glossy cardboard cartons of milk, juice, soup and others foods and beverages now can send them to the curb in a green container for recycling.

The Carton Council, a consortium of carton manufacturers, has helped the city’s existing paper recycling processors purchase equipment that will keep much of these materials out of landfills.

The predominantly paper cartons can be repurposed into paper towels, tissues and even building materials, said Gary Readore, chief of staff in the city’s Solid Waste Management Department.

“We know it’s important to recycle. Citizens are always confronted with, ‘Is this recyclable or is it not?’ ” Mayor Annise Parker said. “When you have too many choices to make, people end up saying, ‘Oh well, I’m just not going to recycle it.’ We’ve … been working to expand options for what you can put in those big, green bins.”

See the City of Houston Solid Waste Facebook page for more. I’m excited by this, because cartons – milk and orange juice, mainly – are a big component of our trash volume these days. Beyond that, it’s things like #6 plastics, plastic bags and wrappings, and food waste. Some forms of #6 plastic – polystyrene – can be taken to city recycling centers, things like plastic bags can be taken to grocery stores, and we compost non-animal product food waste, but more curbside options would be nice, and would help increase participation rates. I don’t want to get into the One Bin debate here, I’m just saying that I look forward to the day when I hardly have any trash to put out. This is a step towards that and that’s a very good thing.

The Trib writes about One Bin For All

Mostly familiar information if you’ve been following this story, but a good overview if it’s new to you.

Laura Spanjian, Houston’s director of sustainability, says the city is spending millions to expand its conventional recycling service and is still evaluating all the options for its one-bin concept. The city hopes that the one-bin idea would eventually divert three-quarters of its trash from landfills and that new facilities would create more than 100 “high tech” jobs.

Spanjian said the city believes its proposal is the best way to boost dismal recycling rates and save money.

“We’re not paying the capital at all,” she said. “Our goal is to keep it cost-neutral.”

Kim Jones, a a professor of environmental engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said that recyclable material is most valuable when it is dry, so mixing it with trash such as food could make it harder to sell. “That’s going to contaminate your paper, and your end user is not going to want that material,” he said.

The Texas Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group, said that China, a major market for America’s recyclables, has recently begun rejecting contaminated paper. And the group’s program director, Melanie Scruggs, is skeptical about the city’s promise of jobs.

Sorting facilities “depend on workers to sort out the waste from the recycling, so whatever objects you’re telling people to throw in there with recyclables potentially creates dangerous working conditions,” Scruggs said. “Nobody wants to create jobs where you’re sorting through trash.” While Houston points to Roseville, Calif.’s one-bin system as a model, Scruggs said her group has visited the town’s facility and found workers who had to sort animal waste from other trash, a potential health risk.

Spanjian said the sorting and drying technologies for waste have improved. She added that the city would turn whatever is not recyclable into energy through some form of gasification. That would involve heating the waste in a chamber to create synthetic gas, which could then generate electricity or be turned into fuel.

But questions also remain about the waste-to-energy strategy. A study released last year by SAIC, an engineering and consulting firm, found that the cost of turning waste into usable energy could run higher than $100 per ton. Houston now spends just $24.60 per ton on landfill fees.

“There’s a huge interest in the topic,” said Scott Pasternak, an environmental consultant who worked on the study. “It can technically be done, but the cost of doing that is going to be, at this point in Texas, substantially greater than existing technologies.” Pasternak said landfill costs are much higher in California, which is why waste-to-energy strategies may be more feasible there.

Here’s the One Bin website. The main thing I learned from this story that I didn’t already know is that Austin’s recycling rate – 24% – is nothing to write home about. The city’s strongest argument is that it can get a much higher diversion rate via One Bin than it could via single stream recycling. That’s hotly disputed by opponents like the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who argue (among other things) that a broad-based education and outreach campaign combined with finishing the job of bringing single stream recycling to all eligible Houston households would boost diversion rates considerably. I get what they’re saying, but I think that would need to be an intensive and long-term project. As it is, even in neighborhoods like mine, lots of people don’t use the big green bins, and in my experience every public space that has separate garbage and recycling receptacles there’s more garbage in the recycling bins and more recyclables in the garbage bins. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of work to change habits, is what I’m saying. Taking an approach that doesn’t depend on people doing the right thing has some appeal to it.

Be that as it may, TCE has launched a new website, Zero Waste Houston, to push back on One Bin. Their strongest argument to me is the fact that none of this is proven technology yet, and claims about turning non-reusable waste into energy are suspect at best. I had the opportunity to hear Don Pagel, the director of the One Bin program, and Melanie Scruggs of TCE talk to our civic association recently. They both do a good job advocating for their respective positions, and as much as they disagree on this strategy they both agree on the ultimate goal of diverting less waste to landfills. The main fact I learned from that meeting was that the city will be putting out RFPs in the next month or so. RFQs were put out last year, and this is the next step. If anything is going to happen with this – and there’s no guarantee of that – we’ll know it in the next twelve months or so.

San Antonio plastic bag ban update

Here’s an update on the city of San Antonio’s effort to regulate plastic bag usage, which may include a ban. It’s written by San Antonio City Council member Cris Medina, who is the point person for the effort.

plastic-bag

Late last year, after multiple conversations with members of the Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee (members are appointed by each City Council member and the Mayor), I became aware of the environmental hazards of single-use plastic bags.

For some time, I had seen plastic bags strewn about our parks, caught in trees, and on frequent occasions, I had picked up countless deteriorating plastic bags during community clean-up events. I was well aware of the eyesore that the 335 plastic bags each American uses per year (U.S. International Trade Commission) cause. What I soon came to learn was that single-use plastics are not biodegrading in our landfills. In fact, many of them are making their way into our waterways and wreaking havoc when wildlife ingest shards of bags.

I also learned about the manufacturing process of plastic bags, which requires an incredible amount of energy, often coming from the burning of fossil fuels. Creation, transport, and use of these bags just one time seems wasteful, wouldn’t you agree?

[…]

Recycling is an option, but it is not one that people often use. In 2012, the city’s Solid Waste Management Department initiated a pilot project which had two goals: reduce the number of single-use plastic bags sold at the point-of-sale with the following retailers: JC Penny, H-E-B, Walmart, Target and Walgreens; and increase recycling of single-use plastic bags. The department spent nearly $400,000 on a marketing campaign to convey and encourage implementation of these goals. A 30 percent increase in recycling at the collection bins provided by retailers on-site was accomplished, while no change in the number of single-use plastic bags was had at the point-of-sale. These results mirror results in other cities across the United States.

The reality is that the nearly 100 cities across the county have transitioned away from single-use plastic bags, yet those same cities saw very little increase in recycling curbside or otherwise. San Jose, California, found that only four percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled (City of San Jose, California). The moral of the story here is that while recycling is possible, it is an expensive investment and it is rarely used.

Recycling will be part of our transition. In August of this year, the city will contract with a new recycling vendor who has the proper equipment to sort single-use plastic bags from our blue collection bins.

Through proper handling, San Antonio citizens will be able to recycle single-use plastic bags and other plastic bags, like the ones your produce comes in, by balling multiple bags together and placing that combined apparatus into blue recycle bins. This is an exciting option for San Antonio.

The issue was first discussed last year, and came up again in February but was put off till this month. As we know, multiple cities have taken various approaches to dealing with plastic bags in the past couple of years in Texas. I’m not aware of any studies that have been done to gauge the effectiveness of each approach. I feel confident that Houston will deal with this sooner or later, and it would be nice to know more about how it has gone so far in other cities. One question that I haven’t seen answered anywhere and which is of interest to me as a dog owner is, what is the recommended way to deal with cleaning up after one’s dog if plastic bags are no longer widely available? I presume there’s something, but I haven’t come across it and I haven’t got the fortitude to Google for it right now. Anyone have personal experience with this?

Center Street recycling facility is closed

So says Swamplot. Multiple emails to a couple of Heights neighorhood mailing lists sounded the alarm as well. This has been a long time coming. Originally, it was supposed to have been closed at the end of 2012, but I guess that extension got extended. With the planned expansion of single stream recycling, locations like Center Street are increasingly redundant, though for folks like some of my panic-stricken neighbors who don’t have their 96-gallon recycling bins yet, there’s still a gap in the short term. And with the continued demand for real estate in this part of town, it’s hard to claim that the highest and best use for that property was a recycling dropoff site. Those of you that are still waiting for the wheely bins, I feel your pain, but you can still lug your glass to Westpark, where at least there will be workers to haul it out of your car for you. I look forward to seeing what becomes of this site. There are still a lot of other warehouse/industrial properties along Center Street between Heights Boulevard and Houston Avenue, with some townhomes mixed in between. This could be the start of a wave.

Recycle that cooking oil

A public service announcement from the city.

The holidays are upon us and that means cooking turkeys, hams and other foods that either require cooking oils to prepare or that generate a surplus of grease when cooked.

Used cooking oils and greases, when disposed down the kitchen drain, cool, harden and clog the pipes. Diluting it in hot soapy water is NOT a solution. You can avoid possible clogged drains for the holidays by putting excess grease in a disposable container and put it in the trash or drop-off at a place that recycles and turns it into a usable product, such as biodiesel.

In conjunction with the City of Houston Solid Waste Department, the following locations are designated drop-off points residents can take used cooking oils/greases for recycling:

City of Houston Environmental Service Centers:
North: Environmental Service Center
5614 Neches Street
Houston 77026
Phone: 713.699.1114
Second Thursday of each month – 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
South: Environmental Service Center
11500 South Post Oak Road
Houston 77035
Phone: 713. 551.7355
Tuesdays and Wednesdays – 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Second Saturday of each month – 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
West: Westpark Consumer Recycling Center
5900 Westpark Drive
Houston 77057
Phone: 713.837.0311
Monday through Saturday – 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Private Service Center in the Heights Area:
Central: Houston Biodiesel
1138 West 20th Street
Houston 77008
Phone: 713.222.0832
Monday through Friday – 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
www.houstonbiodiesel.com

For information about Corral the Grease or ways to properly dispose of used cooking grease visit http://www.publicworks.houstontx.gov/utilities/corral_grease.html.

Good to know. Even if you can’t recycle, please don’t try to wash your used cooking oil down the drain. Your pipes will thank you.

San Antonio begins plastic bag ban consideration

I very much look forward to seeing how this goes.

plastic-bag

San Antonio spends about $1.3 million annually cleaning up plastic bags, while an estimated $25 million is spent across the state, [District 7 Councilman Cris] Medina’s Council Consideration Request says.

Council members Ray Lopez, Ivy Taylor, Rey Saldaña and Shirley Gonzales have signed Medina’s request, which ensures the proposal will be discussed by the council.

Medina’s proposal isn’t the city’s maiden voyage into dealing with plastic bags.

In 2011, leaders here kicked off the “Change is in the Bag” — a voluntary pilot program in which H-E-B, Target, Walgreens, JCPenny and Wal-Mart partnered with the city. Stores set out receptacles to collect used plastic bags. City leaders have said anecdotally that the voluntary program, which officially ended in December 2012, was a failure.

While recycling rates increased by about 30 percent, the usage of plastic bags didn’t drop. Officials had hoped to reduce usage by 25 percent.

[…]

Earlier this year, the San Antonio Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee, a group appointed to advise the council on environmental issues, passed a resolution supporting a bag ban.

The resolution says a ban would improve community aesthetics, help tourism and property values and enhance public health and protect wildlife while lowering landfill and clean-up costs.

Texas Retailers Association CEO Ronnie Volkening said such bans are cumbersome for customers, threaten Texas jobs and don’t help the environment.

“A ban isn’t a progressive thought,” he said. “It shuts down innovation.”

Bag bans tend to focus on grocery stores and some big-box retailers but exempt many other types of plastic bags, including ice bags, bread bags, produce bags and other “plastic film,” such as dry-cleaning bags.

The city of Georgetown has implemented a program that allows residents to collect their single-use plastic bags in a yellow “stuffer” bag, which, once filled, can be tossed into their recycling carts. Volkening said workers at the recycling plant then pull the yellow bags to be recycled.

Single-stream recycling — the process employed by Georgetown and San Antonio — can’t handle plastic bags because they jam the sorting machine. Georgetown’s work-around allows residents to discard their bags with their soda cans and newspapers without jamming the sorting machine.

I don’t understand the expectation that bag usage would drop if recycling were made easier. The ready availability of recycling for aluminum cans and plastic bottles doesn’t have any effect on how much Diet Coke I drink. Perhaps if they’re measuring how many new bags were bought by retailers, that might tell us something useful. But I don’t see how the number of bags being used by customers would be a factor.

Recycling bags is an option I’ll return to in a minute. This Express News story goes into some more detail about the possibilities San Antonio is studying.

More than 150 localities across the U.S., including Brownsville and Austin, have bag regulations, according to the Surfrider Foundation, an advocate for the protection of oceans and beaches.

Medina, who hopes to have a specific policy recommendation within 90 days, said he favors a ban but would be open to a fee charged for bags.

[…]

As officials draft an ordinance, they will have plenty of models to examine. Cities have pursued various methods, all with the goal of cutting bag use and changing people’s bag behavior. Some ordinances target paper bags in addition to plastic. Some are outright bans, while in other cities, customers have to pay a fee if they need a bag from a retailer.

Officials in cities that passed ordinances said they faced challenges from retailers, chemical companies and bag manufacturers in addition to residents’ opposition.

But despite some initial confusion when the bans or fees first went into effect, they said they rarely hear complaints now and have found the bans are helping reduce the problems of bag litter.

“In initial conversations, there was some pushback,” said Megan Ponder, a policy analyst at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in Portland, Ore. “We haven’t seen a lot of pushback from the public recently.”

Portland’s first ordinance passed in 2011 and applied mainly to supermarkets and large pharmacies. It was expanded in 2012 to all retailers and food providers. Now, 5,000 businesses covered by the plastic-bag ban can only provide recycled paper bags or reusable bags.

(Bans tend to exempt bags used for produce and meat at grocery stores, newspapers and dry cleaning, among other purposes.)

The cities that say their policies have been successful mostly back that up with anecdotal evidence. In Seattle, initial surveys of businesses showed many are reporting using fewer bags and residents say not as many are floating around.

“In the downtown area, you really see none,” said Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention at the solid waste utility in Seattle.

[…]

The Texas Retailers Association favors more wide-ranging efforts than bans that get cities, stores and consumers to come up with solutions that are “least disruptive to the marketplace,” said Ronnie Volkening, TRA’s president and CEO.

He said retailers and cities should expand public education campaigns to teach residents more about how to recycle and reuse their bags.

“In our view, bans are not comprehensive,” he said. “They are regressive in that, no matter how you slice it, the cost of either acquiring and maintaining, washing and keeping clean reusable bags is a cost borne disproportionately by lower-income people and families.”

To counter the cost, some cities with bag bans have given away thousands of free bags. H-E-B already gives out hundreds of thousands of free bags statewide every year, Campos said.

Groups that likely will support the measure include the San Antonio River Authority, which is left to clean up plastic bags in addition to other litter that gathers in and along the region’s waterways after storms.

It would be nice if there were more than just anecdotal data about the effect of the various bag bans and fees that have been passed in other cities so far. I’m sure some approaches are more effective than others, but in the absence of any objective metrics, how can we know which way is best? I’d hate to put a lot of time, effort, and political capital into a plan that doesn’t do much. I’m generally skeptical of complaints from business associations in situations like this because they pretty much always complain. They do have a point about the bans not being comprehensive, in that they only affect some businesses and some bags. This is where I come back to the recycling option. You can recycle plastic bags, you just can’t put them in single stream collection bins because they gum up the separators. Georgetown has one solution for that, but it obviously involves a comprehensive education push and a commitment by residents to take an extra step. You have to do that now, in Houston or anywhere else, to collect plastic bags and wrappings of all kinds and then drop them off for recycling. Georgetown’s solution involves less effort, but it’s still a change of habit for people, and that’s never easy. Still, I feel like solving the single stream collection problem so that bags can be treated like any other recyclable has the potential to have the biggest effect. I don’t know what the best answer is, but I agree with the E-N editorial board that more study is needed, and I believe that doing something is better than doing nothing, even if something better comes along later.

What’s on the agenda for Mayor Parker in her third term

Now that Mayor Parker has been safely re-elected, with a better-than-expected margin, what does she plan to do from here?

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A triumphant Parker on Tuesday lauded her “decisive” victory but quickly shifted her focus to the coming two years, listing her third-term priorities as jobs, economic development, rebuilding streets and drainage, and financial accountability.

“There are no quick fixes. We’re rebuilding Houston for the decades, and we’re doing it right,” she said. “My election is over, but the work is going to get much tougher. … The next two years starts tonight.”

Parker had said for weeks she expected to avoid a runoff, and lately has acted the part, saying Monday she intended immediately to place controversial items before the City Council.

An ordinance targeting wage theft should be on the Nov. 13 agenda, she said, with a measure restricting payday and auto title lenders shortly to follow. Both items were discussed by council committees earlier this year before disappearing in favor of bland agendas during the campaign.

The council also should vote on a controversial item rewriting regulations for food trucks before year’s end, Parker said.

She said she also wants to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to an item recently passed in San Antonio that prohibited bias against gay and transgender residents in city employment, contracting and appointments, and in housing and places of public accommodation.

Parker also has said she wants to expand curbside recycling service to every home in Houston, to finish an effort to reduce chronic homelessness, and to give Houston voters a chance to change the city’s term-limits structure, likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. She singled out homelessness and the Bayou Greenways initiative, a voter-approved effort to string trails along all the city’s bayous, Tuesday night.

Parker also has highlighted pending projects: the city is halfway through moving its crime lab from the Houston Police Department to an independent lab; voters’ narrow approval of a joint city-county inmate processing center on Tuesday will let the city shutter its two aging jails.

The mayor twice has failed to persuade the Texas Legislature to give her local negotiating authority with the city’s firefighter pension system; she will get another crack at it in 2015.

Another reform Parker said she wants to tackle is increasing water conservation in Houston, saying “we are one of the most profligate users of water of any city in Texas, and that has to change.”

A lot of this should be familiar. The wage theft ordinance was brought up in August to a skeptical Council committee, and the Mayor promised to bring it up on October 23. Payday lending is a to do items due to legislative inaction. The call for a more comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance was a recent addition that came in the wake of San Antonio passing its more muscular NDO. The crime lab and closure of the city jails are long-term projects that will move forward. It will be interesting to see where Council is on some of these, and it may be better for a couple of them to wait until the runoffs resolve themselves and bring them up next year. Finally, on the subject of water usage, there’s a lot we could do to affect that.

The one cautionary note I would strike is on term limits. You know how I feel about term limits, so I’m not going to go into that. My concern is that this necessarily means a change to the city charter, and that implies the possibility of a larger can of worms being opened. Which, maybe Mayor Parker would welcome, I don’t know. I personally have a hard time shaking the feeling that the goal of this exercise is to curtail the power of the Mayor one way or another – I have a hard time seeing us move to a City Manager form of government, but things like giving Council members the power to propose agenda items are in play. Which, again, may be something the Mayor wants to discuss, and even if it isn’t may be a good thing for the rest of us to talk about. I’ve said I’m open to the conversation, and I am. Doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the possible ways it could go.

One more thing:

Parker said Tuesday she would not be a candidate for any office in 2016.

That was made in the context of speculation that the Mayor’s current agenda for Council might presage a run for statewide office. I don’t know what the Mayor’s plans are for life post-Mayorship, but I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that of course she wouldn’t be a candidate for office in 2016. What office would she run for? The only statewide positions are Railroad Commissioner and judicial seats, and unless she wants to move out west and run against Steve Radack, the only county office that might fit would be Tax Assessor. The question to ask is whether she might be a candidate for office in 2018, and even I would have to admit that’s way too far off to really care about right now. Let’s see how these next two years go, and we’ll figure it out from there.

The next wave of curbside recycling

From last week, some good news for those of who that still don’t have the 96-gallon wheeled recycling bins.

Houston will roll out its biweekly, automated curbside recycling service to 70,000 additional residences throughout the city just in time for Thanksgiving, the Department of Solid Waste Management announced [last] Friday.

The expansion will bring service to a total 210,000 households – more than half of the residences in the department’s service area, spokeswoman Sandra Jackson said. The automated curbside service will be extended to 60,000 more residences in the spring.

“Residents have let us know loud and clear through their participation and support that this is a program they want,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a statement. “This is a significant step in a larger plan to expand recycling citywide.”

The program began in 2009 with 10,000 households.

Letters concerning the program will be mailed to new participating residences. Wheeled 96-gallon containers will be delivered beginning the week of Oct. 28. Collection will begin the week of Nov. 25.

The press release from the city Solid Waste Department, along with a list of included neighborhoods, is here. Council approved this expansion earlier in the month. This expansion and another one for an additional 60,000 houses in the spring were built into the Mayor’s budget, thus bringing us closer to the goal of having all houses receive recycling service without imposing a garbage fee. That approach is certainly open to debate – I’d have been willing to pay a monthly fee, or to support a pay-as-you-throw fee designed to minimize landfill-bound waste – but it’s what we’ve got. Still in the works is the One Bin For All plan, for which RFQs were issued in June. The deadline for those submissions was August 22, and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen or heard anything on it since then. I’ll need to follow up on that. In any event, the march towards more curbside recycling continues. Check and see if your neighborhood is on the list if it wasn’t already receiving the service.

Next wave of recycling bins approved

From last week:

City Council on Wednesday OK’d funding to complete efforts to double the number of 96-gallon green recycling bins parked at city curbs, but it is unclear which 70,000 homes will be next to receive the service.

[…]

The delay in naming which neighborhoods will be part of the second expansion comes from ongoing discussions with council members and coordinating routes so neighborhood collection days do not change, [Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry] Hayes said.

Once the new bins are wheeled out, the percentage of Houston homes with a 96-gallon bin will have increased from 28 to 55 percent, to about 210,000 houses. Add in those residents using 18-gallon tubs and an estimated 63 percent of the city will be able to recycle without driving to a drop-off center.

“My goal is to have curbside recycling at every household in the city,” [Mayor Annise] Parker said.

The first wave of recycling expansion was announced in May, when the budget was released. It brought the 96-gallon wheely bins to 35,000 houses, and broke the heart of some of my neighbors because they weren’t on the list yet. Maybe this announcement will make them happy.

An audit of this year’s first expansion shows about three-quarters of the homes with the new bins actually roll them to the curb, which diverts waste from landfills and creates savings Hayes said he plans to use for expanding the service.

“One group of Houstonians is paying for the next group,” he said. “We encourage folks to call 311 and make that request to be added to the wait list.”

I’d like to know more about who has the bins but isn’t using them, and why. I can’t think of a single good reason why anyone would not use them, and frankly the fact that some 25% of those who have them don’t use them is the best argument I can think of for some kind of “pay as you throw” garbage fee. Our unacceptably low rate of recycling is a major reason the city has been pursuing the One Bin For All solution, and while I get that I feel like we need to make a stronger push to get people to use what we’ve got already. Let’s start by finding out why some people don’t use it, and see what we can do to change that.

If you want your trash to be collected

It’s best to put your trash can where the automated pickup arm can get it.

Three feet between bins, please

Last year, at least 9,000 trash cans in the city were left uncollected at some point, according to records kept by the city, a small percentage of the total number of bins emptied in a year, but enough to slow down an otherwise efficient operation.

On a recent morning, for example, one trash can was left too close to a mailbox, another was blocked by a parked car. [Garbage truck driver Derrick] Colomb had no choice but to slap orange tags on the offending bins.

Other times, what makes sense to residents becomes a huge inconveniences for the trash collector: a box full of paper sitting on top of a bin that fell off and spilled when Colomb tried to pick it up; smaller items of garbage thrown into the bin without being bagged, such as dirty paper towels, spill all over the front yard; bins that are filled over capacity.

[…]

The ZIP codes with most uncollected trash calls are 77004, 77026 and 77087, according to city records.

City officials say those neighborhoods are plagued with unauthorized trash cans and illegal dumping.

“They in general put out more trash and trash cans,” said Jeffery Williams, deputy assistant director of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

I seem to recall my bin not being emptied once or twice, but I don’t recall receiving a tag on it, which would presumably have explained why. If I’m remembering accurately, I’d say the most likely reason was a parked car too close to the bin. If you’ve ever seen the way this works, you’d understand why this is an issue. Basically, there’s a swinging arm that protrudes from the truck, with a pincer end that grabs the bin, then the arm lifts the bin and swings it over the truck, turning it upside down to empty it. This is true for both trash and single stream recycling bins. I definitely do see loose bits of trash or recycling on the ground occasionally after pickup, probably on days that are a little windy. Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered about this, now you know. Watch where you put your bins, and don’t overfill them or stack anything on top of them. Your garbage collector will thank you for it.

City seeks One Bin For All RFQs

Calling all vendors.

The city of Houston took a step forward on its “One Bin for All” project this week.

The project would allow residents to discard trash and recyclables in one bin to be sorted at a new $100 million facility, which would be built and run by a private firm.

On June 12, the city issued a request for qualification, looking for firms to provide residential municipal solid waste and recyclables processing, and named Deputy Director Don Pagel as the new program manager for the project.

The city will hold a pre-proposal conference on June 27, and RFQ submissions are due Aug. 22. Click here to download the RFQ.

See here for my previous blogging on One Bin For All, and here for the city’s press release. Of interest is this Houston Politics post about the budget hearing for the Solid Waste department.

City Council this Wednesday will vote on whether to spend $2.5 million to purchase 11,408 trash carts and 34,560 recycling carts for the Solid Waste Management Department, the latter a part of the city’s planned expansion of curbside single-stream recycling service.

Solid Waste Department spokeswoman Sandra Jackson said the department plans to release the list of neighborhoods where the recycling carts will go after City Council approves the purchase.

Today, 26 percent of Houston homes have 18-gallon green tubs that take newspapers, magazines, cans, cardboard and plastic, and 28 percent have single-stream, which are larger, have wheels, and which accept glass in addition to those other items. About 46 percent of homes have no curbside recycling.

The $7.8 million expansion plan, which Mayor Annise Parker touted last month in announcing her proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, would expand single-stream service to about 55 percent of the city’s households (adding 35,000 in July and 70,000 in October), making some type of curbside recycling available to about 63 percent of homes, department Director Harry Hayes said.

As a result, Hayes said he expects the citywide recycling rate to increase from roughly 19 percent now to about 23 percent after the expansion. (By comparison, he said, the goal of waste diverted from landfills as part of the still-in-development One Bin For All proposal would be 55 percent in the first year and, eventually, 75 percent).

The black trash cans on the agenda tomorrow would replace broken and lost ones, as well as serve new customers and give some customers extra bins — for a price. Hayes expects to bring in $1.3 million in the coming fiscal year from selling residents extra trash cans, and another $480,000 from selling bins to businesses.

Those were just two details gleaned from Hayes’ budget presentation this morning, the latest in City Council’s two-week budget hearing process. (See below for details from the Houston Public Library budget presentation.)

Hayes proposes a $70.6 million budget, up from $69.4 million this year. In addition to expanding curbside recycling (Hayes said he hopes to expand single-stream service citywide in the next 2.5 fiscal years), his budget also calls for expanding or remodeling some neighborhood recycling centers in early 2014.

Landfill fees are projected at $13.5 million; as recently as fiscal year 2008, they were $23.6 million.

That was from last week. I was beginning to wonder what had happened with that, since surely Council had voted on it by now, but I wasn’t seeing any news about it. However, on Friday I got this press release from the city that made the official announcement about that first expansion of automated curbside recycling to 35,000 more households. Click over to see if your neighborhood is getting it in July if you haven’t gotten it already, or if you have to wait till October.

On a side note, the debate about how effective the One Bin solution will be continues. City Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian and Texas Campaign for the Environment Houston program director Tyson Sowell each contributed an op-ed to Waste & Recycling News with their perspective. They have been going back and forth on this since the One Bin plan was announced, including here, so you should read what they have to say there to keep up with the discussion.

Collecting compost from restaurants

The city of Austin takes another step on its path towards zero waste.

Austin restaurants and other food businesses will have to compost food scraps starting in 2016, under new rules the City Council OK’d Thursday.

Food service businesses — including fast-food chains, caterers, cafeterias and bars — that are bigger than 5,000 square feet will be required to separate out organic and compostable materials from other trash and have them picked up by private haulers.

Smaller food businesses will have to comply starting in 2017.

Food trailers will be exempt for now, because the city needs to spend more time developing rules unique to them, said Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, the city of Austin’s trash and recycling department.

Under the rules passed Thursday, large food service businesses also will have to recycle several materials, including paper, plastics and aluminum, starting next year. Smaller food businesses will have to comply later.

The new rules aim to help the city meet its so-called zero waste goal of dramatically reducing the trash sent to landfills by 2040, Gedert said.

Food scraps and other compostable goods make up 40 to 50 percent of the trash that restaurants generate, Gedert said. Keeping those goods out of the landfill will go a long way toward achieving zero waste, Gedert said.

The policy passed Thursday builds on rules that the city enacted last fall, when it began requiring large apartment properties and office buildings to recycle more materials.

[…]

Don “Skeeter” Miller, co-owner of County Line restaurants and president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, said the membership was initially skeptical of the compost rules but is now mostly supportive, mainly because the rules won’t take effect for a few years.

Austin already has a pilot program for curbside composting for residences. Restaurants are obviously a big source of food waste, so bringing them into the picture ought to make a significant difference. Here in Houston, the One Bin For All plan will deal with compostable refuse, but that is just for residences. Going back through my archives, it’s not clear to me if “residences” means just the places currently covered by city of Houston trash pickup or if it also includes apartments, but in either case it does not include businesses, particularly restaurants. I would like to see Houston extend its vision to include businesses and office buildings as well. One thing at a time, I understand, I’m just noting this for the record. I wish Austin all the best in this effort.

It sure is nice to budget when you have money

Mayor Parker has released her FY2014 budget, and it’s great news for those of you that have been waiting for their single-stream recycling bin.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

More than 100,000 Houston homes will be added to the city’s single-stream recycling program by this fall, doubling the number of households receiving the 96-gallon green bins.

About 35,000 homes will receive single-stream service via the wheeled containers in July, allowing curbside recycling of glass, newspapers, magazines, cans, cardboard and plastic. Another 70,000 homes will be added in October.

Today, 28 percent of Houston homes have single-stream, and 26 percent use 18-gallon tubs, in which glass is not allowed. Another 46 percent do not have curbside recycling. The $7.8 million plan would expand single-stream service to about 55 percent of the city’s households, Mayor Annise Parker said. Of the initial 35,000 homes, a Solid Waste Department spokeswoman said, 15,000 will be first-time recyclers and 20,000 will upgrade from the 18-gallon tubs.

“To be a little more than halfway there is a great milestone,” Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes said, adding he anticipates a $500,000 savings in waste diverted from landfills.

The announcement came as Mayor Annise Parker rolled out her budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposed budget, which must be approved by City Council, is $4.5 billion, including enterprise funds such as the aviation department and utility systems, and represents a 6.4 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

The proposed general fund budget, supported chiefly by property and sales taxes, is $2.2 billion, an increase of 4.9 percent over the current budget, but just 2.4 percent over projected spending for the current year.

Most of the spending increases – 51 percent – are driven by contracts with the city municipal, police and fire unions and each group’s pension board. Another 8.4 percent will go to rising health care costs.

The Mayor’s press release on the budget is here. Expanded recycling is the big deal, but there are a lot of other goodies in there as well. Some highlights include the completion of the rape kit backlog; $2.2 million to fund operations of the city’s new public safety radio project, which is about harmonizing communications with Harris County and other entities; the creation of the Forensic Transition Special Fund to keep separate and account for costs related to the Houston Forensic Science LGC; an extra $693K for BARC; and for the first time ever, a line item for infrastructure maintenance, renewal and replacement. The release also notes that all services that were cut two years ago will be restored if they have not already been. Like I said, ain’t it great to have the money for the things you need?

UPDATE: From the Texas Campaign for the Environment and my inbox:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

May 15, 2013

Contact: Tyson Sowell (713) 337-4192 (office) or (217) 418-9415 (cell)

Environmentalists Applaud Recycling Expansion But Opposed to City’s “Recycling Scheme”

HOUSTON–Environmentalists applaud Mayor Parker’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Proposal that would expand curbside recycling to 100,000 households, while also urging her office to let curbside recycling work before adopting unproven waste schemes. The proposed expansion of single-stream recycling, separation of recyclables in one cart and garbage in another cart, is the single largest expansion of curbside recycling in the City of Houston’s history.

“We are very happy to hear a renewed commitment to the expansion of single-stream recycling,” Tyson Sowell, Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment said. “Over the previous years, the city has said that they cannot expand curbside recycling due to budget constraints. We’re glad to see that they have decided to make recycling a priority.”

The proposed curbside expansion comes on the heels of recent negative public reaction towards the Mayor’s proposal to build a “dirty MRF (materials recovery facility)”.

The “dirty MRF” would cost an estimated $100 million, and would sort recyclables and garbage that have been combined or sorted by residents and collected in one truck. Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) says that similar facilities in other communities and have failed to achieve high recycling rates.

“Houstonians want to recycle and we want real recycling. The announced expansion is a direct result of thousands of letters written by Houstonians to the mayor and city council members asking for real recycling, not some magic system that will not work,” Mr. Sowell said. “Houstonians get it. They understand that dirty MRFs do not work because of contamination issues. They understand that paper is ruined when you place your coffee grounds on top of it. Hopefully this is a sign that the City of Houston understands this now, as well, and will allow real recycling to work.”

Currently, the city services 375,000 households with garbage collection services. Of those 375,000 households, 170,000 households do not have curbside recycling available to them. The proposed expansion would cut the number to those without curbside recycling to 135,000 households at the start of fiscal year 2014 and cut it again to 70,000 by the end of fiscal year 2014.

Mr. Sowell says that the next step is for the city to commit to similar expansions of recycling for the next two fiscal years so that everyone will have single-stream curbside recycling by 2016 and for the city to abandon the “dirty MRF” idea.

City response on “One Bin For All”

Last week, I asked several environmental groups for feedback on the city’s One Bin For All proposal. I said I would follow up on that with the city. I have their response here, but before I get to it I want to report that I got some further feedback from David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters:

TLCV has revised our position on this issue. We have taken no position on Houston’s “One Bin For All” project. We are not deferring to any other organization on the merits of this project. The board of directors is evaluating the project and we will take a public position at a later date.

With that out of the way, here is what the city has to say about the One Bin project.

One Bin for All

By Laura Spanjian, Sustainability Director, City of Houston

The City of Houston is very proud to have won the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge and Fan Favorite contest for One Bin for All. Houston won $1 million for our idea (one of 5 winners out of 305 cities), after working through a challenging and thorough vetting process by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The City of Houston is excited to work on this game changing technology and make it successful for all Houstonians.

Houston is shaking up the status quo in so many areas:

  • Houston a bike friendly city? Yes, with our voter approved $100 million Bayou Greenway and almost $2 million expansion of Bike Share.
  • Houston a city that couples historic preservation with sustainability? Yes, the renovated historic Julia Ideson Building and Houston Permitting Center are both LEED Gold.
  • Houston a cutting edge forensics hub? Yes, the City is leading the nation in creation of an independently managed Forensic Science Center.
  • Houston a city with a growing public transportation system? Yes, we are currently investing more than $4.1 billion to expand the current 7.5 mile urban lightrail system toa 39mile system.
  • Houston a recycling leader? Yes, with the potential of One Bin for All, we can transform how people think about trash, making “trash” extinct.

These initiativesare transforming our City. As Mayor Annise Parker has said, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it here.”

The best part of exploring a new idea is to work with people to try to make it happen. There is so much opportunity to work towards something that could have huge positive benefits for Houston, the region and the nation. We appreciate the large positive response we have received in support of this idea, as well as the 15k people who voted for One Bin for All as their favorite idea. We also appreciate the questions and suggestions we have received about the idea, and look forward to continuing our many dialogues and a robust public process as we begin a competitive process to solicit a partner to work with the City. There are many process steps to be undertaken before anything is finally decided. Our Advisory Committee will also be launching soon to provide expert advice as we continue our work.

One Bin’s powerful metaphor is that everything is a resource and everything can be repurposed.

This innovation is in some ways a natural progression for the recycling industry. When recycling first started, it began for a single commodity and then it changed and more commodities were deemed to have value beyond their original use. This change caused these materials to have to be separated (plastics from aluminum from paper). Then, technology advanced again and could handle all recyclables commingled. The waste/recycling industry is constantly figuring out new and different ways that additional materials can be put into this “single-stream” recycling bin. Now, we believe technology has advanced again and is ready to address full commingling and the bulk of the remainder of the waste stream. Thus, the cycle continues its natural progression from dual-stream to single-stream to One Bin.

Unfortunately, what is not very well known is that recycling rates are still very low in the US. According to EPA estimates, after 40 years of recycling education cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash.The traditional sorting approach to recycling produces low rates of recycling and generally leads to multiple bins, multiple routes, increased operating costs and increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). We believe it’s worth our effort to try to find a better way to address resource recovery. And in the process, we will educate residents about the value all materials have. The concept of trash will be extinct and replaced by an understanding that all discarded material has value and can be recycled or repurposed. Nothing will be “thrown away” any longer.

Will the technology work to achieve high waste diversion?

Many of the individual components contemplated to be deployed have long been used in the waste, mining, food or refining industries. Currently, no facility integrates all of the technologies, processes and systems in the manner envisioned for One Bin for All—but, that’s the innovation. One Bin for All will expand on successful projects in California, Canada, Greece, Germany and England. City staff members have visited several of these facilities, and have seen that residential commingled materials can be processed into valuable resources.

Houston will have a robust and transparent competitive RFQ process and rely on an RFQ Review Committee, leveraging its technical and financial expertise to evaluate critical components of the RFQ responses. To enhance implementation and scalability, an Advisory Committee will provide guidance and recommendations to the City regarding technology evaluations, partnerships, education and outreach.

During negotiations, the City will work to include guarantees for equipment uptime performance and diversion rate and will require escrow funds to compensate the City if there is a breach of contract or default.

Plus, Houston will continue its expansion of its current single-stream recycling program until

One Bin for All is fully implemented. The recycling bins will be used as the One Bin, reinforcing the idea that trash is extinct and all discarded materials have value.

Can the facility be financed?

Raising capital and providing a location lies with the successful proposer. However, Houston can guarantee the city’s residential waste stream and a per ton processing fee for a long-term period, thus providing investors with the assurance they require as well as a reasonable rate of return. Houston can also cultivate commercial and regional partnerships to broaden the reach of the program. Houston will not proceed with a technology that requires the City to pay additional costs than what it is currently paying. The program will be designed to save costs, and by treating all trash as assets with value, generate revenue to the City.

What are the environmental benefits?

As Houston is able to recover and recycle more material from its waste stream, the City will have a reduction in GHGs. The principal source of the reduction will come from diverting organic material (primarily food) away from the landfill, because its decomposition releases methane. Methane is estimated by EPA to be 21 times more potent, in terms of its ability to warm the earth, than the more common carbon dioxide.

According to EPA’s Waste Reduction Model, by diverting 75% of the mixed municipal solid waste to reuse/recycling and composting processes, Houston will reduce roughly 3.72 metric tons of carbon equivalent per ton of MSW diverted.

Houston has been designated a non-attainment area for ozone, a criteria pollutant under the Clean Air Act. One Bin for All will allow solid waste collection routes to be optimized resulting in the removal of the equivalent of 5,000 vehicles off the road each year. The associated emissions reductions in ozone precursors (nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds) will benefit Houston in its ongoing efforts to achieve attainment status. The City will buy and maintain fewer trucks and residential bins, and will have fewer truck routes to develop, manage, and operate. The current system requires two entirely separate truck routes, crews and equipment (in addition to yard waste and heavy trash pick-up, which the new program might also be able to address).  The volume of recyclables in the dual and single-stream is fairly consistently less than a bin full.  The One Bin for All proposal lets that inefficient volume of material join the routine weekly stop at the residence to be more efficient, removing VMT and the related emissions.

Beyond these localized effects on air quality, One Bin for All will provide regional and global benefits because reclaimed material will replace virgin raw materials for manufacturing. Using reclaimed material as feedstock reduces or eliminates the energy used in extraction and manufacture of new products.

Why is the One Bin for All process different than a “dirty” materials recovery facility (MRF)?

This innovation is a highly adaptable series of technologies and process innovations. It is unique in that it will process unsorted curbside residential waste, treating all materials as recyclables or valuable assets.

Remove contamination: This innovation will remove 2-inch minus (very small) material early in the sorting process to minimize contamination.

New Design: The innovation has an optimized design which will allow it to be capable of mining all conventional recyclable commodities (paper, plastics, ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals and glass), while producing compost or carbon neutral fuel streams from the remaining low-value wet and dry organics.

Technology: The innovation will utilize only field tested and proven components (ballistic shredders creating 3-D chunks, optical scanners, density separaters, eddy currents, etc.), arranged in a unique order to maximize system productivity and guarantee uptime and high diversion rates without a thermal element.

Organics: The innovation will divert virtually all organics from landfill disposal, turning them into compost or methane (via anaerobic digesters).

Highly specialized sorting: The innovation will separate inbound residential waste into as many as twenty highly concentrated material streams. Separated food and green waste will be further processed with a highly productive, yet passive, biological process to produce large quantities of bio-methane, compost, which is virtually weed seed and pathogen free, and a concentrated, natural, nutrient rich fertilizer. The clean bio-methane will be used to produce electricity, bio-diesel or natural gas through licensed technologies. Lower value, dry organics (wood and textiles) could provide a consistent feedstock ideal for processing using catalytic conversion to drop-in fuels (gasoline and diesel).

Some responses from civic, environmental, waste and industry leaders:

  • Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City Mayor and philanthropist, has said, “Recycling has often been treated as an individual responsibility, like paying taxes. But Mayor Parker’s innovative One Bin for All idea turns that notion on its head. Achieving a 75% recycling recovery rate in Houston would represent a huge leap forward in urban sustainability practices.”
  • Brian Yeoman, City Director Houston, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, says, “The processing technology for Houston’s proposed One Bin for All system is an innovative new integration of improved existing technologies. However, such integration has not been implemented commercially in the United States and only partially in Europe. The City of Houston should continue to follow strict due diligence as it works toward implementation of this alternative to traditional recycling. Special attention should be put forth when drafting the performance requirements, fee structuring, revenue sharing and GHG emissions accounting. C40 believes that there is significant merit in the City of Houston pursuing further and deeper due diligence for this game-changing system. The benefits to the national and international waste industry could be tremendous.”
  • Elena Craft of Environmental Defense Fund has said: “I think the One Bin proposal is an interesting and innovative approach to the issue. The City of Houston needed to take a proactive step to deal with its low recycling rate. This proposal beat out many others from other cities to win the Bloomberg Philanthropies grant, and I would like to see it succeed. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.”
  • Drew Sones, former director of the Bureau of Sanitation for the City of Los Angeles, has said new sorting technology is already working and that if he were director today, he would use Houston’s approach. “People don’t recycle everything or don’t recycle at all and don’t participate.”
  • Alan Del Paggio of CRI Catalyst Company, a Houston subsidiary of Shell, is now turning biomass into gasoline and diesel. “We’re well on our way to demonstrate to the world that this is not just wishful thinking but, in fact, this is a technical reality and an economic reality.”

Other groups supporting our work to move this forward and continue due diligence include: Rocky Mountain Institute; William McDonough + Partners; Houston-Galveston Area Council; Houston Advanced Research Center; University of Houston; Keep Houston Beautiful; Air Alliance Houston; the Greater Houston Partnership; and the Johnson Space Center/NASA.

Republic Services, a waste industry giant, has partnered with Bulk Handling Systems and the City of San Jose to operate a facility that takes all commingled commercial dry waste, using a process similar to what Houston is proposing. And Lancaster, CA, is also considering a one bin type solution. The Lancaster City Council approved a plan to move this idea forward. Overall, companies are very interested in working with the City to try to implement our idea or are interested in learning more. And as reported in Resource Recycling, other waste industry leaders such as Waste Management are neutral. Large recyclers such as the Newark Group would take material from a commingled source if it met their criteria.

Our vision is to obtain the highest possible diversion rates, greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, improved air quality, reduced operations costs, increased revenue and easiest to use program for residents. Let’s work together on what could be an innovation that helps all cities achieve their recycling rates and diversion goals.

Together we can accomplish anything if we work cooperatively, keep an open mind and support new ideas that are trying to do something better, if different. Change is hard, but together we can achieve great things.

That answered a lot of my questions about this project. I hope it answered yours. My thanks to Laura Spanjian for all the information.

UPDATE: Per his request, David Weinberg’s statement has been updated.

What other environmental groups think about “One Bin For All”

As you know, last week the city announced that it had won the $1 million runnerup prize from the Bloomberg Foundation that would enable it to begin work on a single-bin solution for solid waste and recycling. While this announcement was generally met with cheers, the Texas Campaign for the Environment was not among those cheering. Their opposition to this proposal was a reiteration of previously expressed concerns about it. This got me wondering what other environmental groups thought about this proposal, since none of the coverage I’ve read has included any discussion of that. So I contacted several environmental groups and asked them for their feedback on this proposal. These are the responses I got.

From Frank Blake of the Houston chapter of the Sierra Club:

1. The proposal claims that it will reduce air pollution by reducing truck routes. But I don’t understand how truck travel would be significantly reduced since the overall volume of material to be transported would be the same. (50 truck loads of trash and 50 truck loads of recycling are still 100 truck loads if you combine it all; and since trash trucks fill up fairly quickly, there wouldn’t be much reduction in travel miles).

2. Since this ‘innovative’ method has not been tested on a large scale, and involves multiple technologies, is it really more cost effective than other existing methods? The costs to develop ‘innovative’ technological approaches often exceed estimates. And does the ‘One Bin’ collection method just shift certain processing costs down the line to other stages? Or result in reduced market value of recycled materials (contamination issues)?

3. Initial source separation enhances the market value of certain recyclables – e.g., paper and cardboard. Paper products co-mingled with other trash and food waste would have significantly reduced value, and limited recycling options. If you want to efficiently recycle paper products, one doesn’t mix them with food waste and other contaminants.

4. Composting is mentioned as a component of the ‘One Bin for All’ program. But how is it possible to maintain quality control for compost generated from general trash collections? General trash would include everything from broken glass, fluorescent lights (mercury), pharmaceuticals, and a variety of hazardous substances. What could such compost be used for? (Note: both Austin and San Antonio have initiated pilot curbside compost collections – i.e., compost materials are collected separately from general trash and recyclables).

5. What ‘waste to fuel’ technologies would be involved? The use of municipal waste as fuel can present problems because of the possible inclusion of contaminants and hazardous wastes. Where would such ‘waste to fuel’ facilities be located? Would the public be involved in any ‘waste to fuel’ decisions?

6. Other cities, including Dallas and Austin have adopted zero waste plans, with goals to reduce waste going to landfills by 90% and more. Houston has not yet adopted a long range plan or goals. Would adoption of a “One Bin for All” program with expensive processing facilities limit future options in Houston? What if there is a ceiling on the effective recycling rates that this method can accomplish? (and there is concern that the claimed “up to 70% rate” is overly optimistic).

7. How does a “One Bin for All” program really discourage waste, or encourage more ‘sustainable’, lower CO2 emitting lifestyles? It seems to do the opposite in ways, by sending a message to the public that it doesn’t matter what they discard, and that they don’t need to be conscious of recycling. (if recycling is perceived as difficult in some quarters, it is in part because the City of Houston has invested very little in public education over the years and has had different recycling programs or lack of programs in different parts of the City).

8. I am concerned and puzzled that the City of Houston would roll out this type of comprehensive proposal without more consultation, input and involvement with the public, and recycling and environmental advocates.

Elena Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund had this to say:

I think the One Bin proposal is an interesting and innovative approach to the issue. The city of Houston needed to take a proactive step to deal with its low recycling rate. This proposal beat out many others from other cities to win the Bloomberg Foundation grant, and I would like to see it succeed. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.

Finally, Luke Metzger of Environment Texas said he would defer to TCE on this issue, since they are the experts on waste among Texas environmental groups and he had not been following the story. David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters also deferred to TCE, saying that there’s a division of labor in the environmental community, with TCE taking the lead on waste issues. I hadn’t considered that before now, but in retrospect it makes sense.

So there you have it. There are definitely concerns about the Houston One Bin solution, though they are not universally shared. I do think we are low on detail at this point, and it would be nice to know more about the history of this kind of solution in other cities, and why Houston thinks past failures can be overcome. I also think Frank Blake makes a strong point about the message this sends that recycling would become the city’s responsibility and not the individual’s, which in turn provides a disincentive for people to think about their own usage patterns and their own need to follow the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle. The idea of recycling just doesn’t exist for a lot of people. I base this statement on the fact that every public recycling receptacle I’ve ever seen in Houston always has at least as much trash in it as recyclables, and every public trash can always has lots of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other obvious recyclables; this is true even when the trash can and the recycling bin are right next to each other. People just don’t think about it. I suspect that even in neighborhoods with the 96-gallon single-stream recycling bins, participation is less than it should be, and in neighborhoods that still use the little bins that don’t take glass or cardboard, it’s pathetically low. That’s without taking into account apartments, offices, restaurants, and so forth. This is the crux of the city’s case for the one bin solution. One could certainly argue that a combination of a more aggressive single-stream rollout plus a PR campaign to educate people about recycling would be a more ideal way for the city to go. I agree that it would be more ideal, but it’s not clear to me that it would get better results, even if the claims about how much material can be usefully recovered from a single bin solution are overstated. What’s the minimum level of participation in single-stream recycling that’s necessary to be “better” than the single-bin solution? I don’t know the answer to that.

Anyway. I would certainly prefer that Houston be a better recycling city. I’m open to arguments that it’s possible to get to where we should be as a city without the one bin solution. I get the concerns, and I plan to follow up with the city to see how they would respond to them. What are your thoughts?

Not everyone likes the One Bin solution

From the inbox:

Texas Campaign for the Environment vowed today to mobilize Houstonians against Mayor Annise Parker’s so-called “One Bin for All” proposal, saying that the scheme will take recycling away from the minority of residents who already have it, delay expanding it to new neighborhoods and lay the groundwork for future environmental damage.

“This has been tried before, it’s called a dirty materials recovery facility, or dirty MRF,” says Tyson Sowell, Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment in Houston. “Similar facilities have been built elsewhere with promises of huge recycling rates, but none have delivered on their promise and were abandoned.”

The city is proposing that Houstonians put all their waste into one bin where it will be separated mechanically at a new $100 million facility to be located at a landfill. The city claims that technology exists for separating out recyclables from other garbage which could improve the Houston’s recycling rate to 75%. Environmental and industry groups say the facility will not work and will only delay expanding curbside recycling to all Houston residents.

“Mayor Annise Parker has ambitious goals, but all of us will be sorely disappointed when $100 million gets spent on a facility which leaves us worse off than before,” Sowell said. “We want to work with the city, but we are accountable to the environment, and a dirty MRF is wasteful and ill-advised.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment is preparing to release later this week two open letters to the mayor expressing skepticism over the scheme, one from recycling industry leaders and another from national recycling advocates, including Annie Leonard of “Story of Stuff” fame. According to the letters, many valuable recyclables, like paper, cardboard and some plastics, become contaminated during comingling, preventing them from having any value in the marketplace.

“Contamination is an issue with any recycling program,” says Rick Anthony, founder of the Grassroots Recycling Network and pioneer in the field of recycling. “But when you are purposely putting your coffee grounds in with your newsprint it devalues what could have been two valuable commodities. You can’t recycle that paper and you compost those coffee grounds. They become useless. Separating at the curb is the only way to ensure high recycling rates.”

Additionally, advocates say that another key problem with Houston’s proposal is that it encourages residents to put their electronic waste, like computers and televisions, in the same bin as other discards.

“Computers and televisions do not belong in the same bin as dirty diapers,” says Mike Buckles, owner and operator of TechnoCycle, an electronics recycling company based in Houston. “This has the potential to create a whole host of health and safety issues for companies like mine. I don’t want to deal with old food stuck on a computer monitor.”

Houston is behind other major cities when it comes to recycling, with a majority of residents having no recycling available at their home. The city’s application for the Bloomberg Grant admitted that “the mayor is constantly besieged by citizens to bring recycling to their neighborhoods.” The One Bin proposal would remove curbside recycling from neighborhoods where it already exists, and would foreclose any plans to expand it into any of the neighborhoods now seeking it.

“We know what works and we know that this doesn’t. These types of facilities have proven to be ineffective, but separating your recyclables from your garbage at the curb works, it’s just as easy, and it’s a tenth of the price,” says Tyson Sowell. “We are talking with Houstonians door to door and they see through this. We trust the Mayor will change course soon and lead the city in the right direction on recycling.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment had previously outlined its objections to the single bin plan here. At this point, the discussion is beyond my level of expertise. I will do my best to learn more and come to a judgment about it.

Houston wins $1 million runnerup Bloomberg prize

From the Mayor’s office:

Mayor Annise Parker today announced that Houston’s One Bin for All idea is one of the five winners in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire American cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life – and that ultimately can be shared with other cities to improve the well-being of the nation. Houston was selected as a Mayors Challenge winner out of a pool of over 300 applicant cities, based on four criteria: vision, ability to implement, potential for impact, and potential for replication.  Houston will receive a $1 million innovation prize to help implement its One Bin for All idea. As the winner of the Mayors Challenge Fan Favorite Selection, Houston will receive a $50K in-kind grant from IBM to support the implementation of its One Bin For Allidea as well as featured coverage and promotion from The Huffington Post, including a monthly front page column for a year and an interview with Arianna Huffington on Huff Post Live. The City will also receive a sculpture created by world-renowned designer Olafur Eliasson to commemorate each of the Mayors Challenge winners.

“I am thrilled that Houston has been selected as a Mayors Challenge winner,” said Mayor Parker. “One Bin for All is a first-of-its kind innovation that will revolutionize the way we handle trash, achieving high-volume recycling and waste diversion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and lower operating costs.  I am anxious to begin implementation because I know this cutting-edge technology has the potential to improve health and quality of life not only in Houston, but around the world.”

“Recycling has often been treated as an individual responsibility, like paying taxes. But Mayor Parker’s innovative One Bin For All idea turns that notion on its head,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, philanthropist and Mayor of New York City. “Achieving a 75% recycling recovery rate in Houston would represent a huge leap forward in urban sustainability practices.”

One Bin for All utilizes game-changing technology to separate trash from recyclables, allowing residents to discard all materials in one bin.  The anticipated end result is a dramatic increase in the amount of waste diverted from our landfills.  Implementation will be achieved through a public/private partnership.

Here’s the background, and here’s the Chron story. Providence, RI was the big winner:

Rhode Island’s capital city has won a $5 million contest created by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg with a high-tech plan to overcome a language skills problem known as the word gap that puts low-income children at a profound disadvantage in the classroom.

Providence was one of 305 cities that pitched an idea to Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a contest designed to spur innovation in America’s cities. Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif., were selected for $1 million runner-up prizes. The winners are set to be announced Wednesday in New York.

Providence’s winning proposal will equip low-income children with recording devices that count the words and conversations they are exposed to. Combined with coaching lessons for parents,, the plan is designed to help poor children overcome a language skills deficit that develops before they even start kindergarten.

A landmark 1995 study found that children in families receiving welfare hear less than one-third as many words per hour as their more affluent peers and will reach age four having heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional families. Research shows the word deficit is tied to later academic performance and employment opportunities.

“Education is the path out of poverty; I know, because I have followed it,” Providence Mayor Angel Taveras told The Associated Press. “We need to make sure that path is available to more kids. The first teacher in a child’s life is a child’s parent. We can do something to help them.”

That’s pretty cool, too. Congrats to Providence, Houston, and the other runners-up. I look forward to seeing these proposals get turned into reality.

Still fighting the Waller County landfill

I’ve written before about a battle in Waller County over a proposed landfill that would be built there. While the landfill has moved closer to being approved, it’s not yet a done deal, and its opponents are still fighting against it.

“This landfill has done more to divide our county than anything I’ve ever seen. It breaks my heart,” said Waller County Judge Glenn Beckendorff.

Those opposing the proposed Pintail landfill have so far sent a near record 6,000 emails and letters to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, urging the agency to deny the permit.

But Green Group Holdings President Ernest Kaufmann contends the protest typifies the “not in my backyard” syndrome that happens whenever his company tries to put in a new landfill.

“Unfortunately, it’s the same argument that you hear wherever you go. It’s always about the groundwater and the smell,” he said. “But our landfills are engineered to be very safe.”

Waller County, which currently has no operating landfills within its borders, transports its waste to Harris, Fort Bend and other counties.

Kaufmann said the landfill is needed to meet needs of the community. “Growth in Waller County and the surrounding area is inevitable,” he said.

According to state records, the proposed landfill will be about 17 percent larger than the average landfill in Texas.

Pintail’s application estimates 161 vehicles a day will haul about 429,000 tons of garbage – none coming from outside the state – to its site each year. That number is expected to grow to 292 vehicles a day once the landfill is fully established, the application states.

The disposal area would be confined to 223 acres with other acreage used as a buffer or a potential industrial park.

Eventually, over decades, a mountain of waste would be dumped there. It will rise roughly 150 feet, or as tall as a 15-story building. Only about 5 percent will come from Waller County.

Boy, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want that in their backyard. Opponents of the landfill cite factors such as water contamination and discouraging other development in the county; the proposed site is off Highway 6, not far from Prairie View A&M. While these are very valid concerns, I think building giant new landfills anywhere is a bad idea. Frankly, it’s not clear to me that the demand will be there for this landfill, what with cities seeking to reduce the amount of waste they generate, and the amount they have to spend on things like landfill space. Landfills are yesterday’s solution, not tomorrow’s. As much as anything I’d be worried about being stuck with an albatross. I hope the folks who are asking the TCEQ to deny the permit have some luck getting through to them on this.

Adventures in water marketing

The headline on this story is about Texans’ increasing interest in recycling water. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But there’s another way of describing it that maybe isn’t so appealing.

Experts say recycled wastewater will play a key role in satisfying the thirst of a rapidly growing population. While reuse now provides 2 percent of Texas’ water, state officials say that over the next half-century the drought-proof source will account for at least 10 percent of new supplies.

To reach the goal, state lawmakers may require at least 20 percent of any new funding for water-related infrastructure to go toward conservation or reuse. The requirement is part of House Bill 4, which would allow a one-time transfer of $2 billion into a new revolving, low-interest loan program for water projects.

“This is a robust and reliable source,” said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency. “Its future is very promising.”

[…]

Before drought began gripping the state in 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality typically approved fewer than 20 reuse requests from cities and water districts each year. The number jumped to 32 two years ago and 38 last year, with 25 applications already pending this year, the agency said.

Arroyo attributed the increasing interest in reclaimed water in part to the lingering drought, which covers 74 percent of the state. He also credited improving technology, which now is capable of turning sewage into water so clean it’s almost distilled.

[…]

Water managers see wetlands as a reliable, less-expensive solution to more dams, aqueducts and pipelines that deliver water over long distances. Wetlands allow them to reuse water that they already paid at least once to store and purify.

For all the interest in toilet-to-tap technology, more new potable reuse projects will take the indirect route through wetlands, rather than go straight to the faucet, Arroyo said. Meanwhile, most water reuse will continue to be for irrigation, landscaping and purposes other than human consumption.

I’m going to step out on a limb here and venture that if you were in charge of an advertising campaign for water recycling, you might prefer to steer clear of the phrase “toilet to tap technology”. I mean, you probably don’t want people thinking too much about where that water originated. I know, I know, this is ultimately the way it goes for all of our water, with or without any fancy new technology. I suspect most people would rather imagine that their water all comes from a nice reservoir or a cool mountain stream or something like that. It may not matter that much if most of the recycled water goes to things like irrigation or decoration or other non-drinking purposes. I’m just saying.

Vote for Houston in the Mayor’s Challenge final

From the HuffPo:

Vote below for your favorite idea among the 20 Mayors Challenge finalists! Voting is open from February 20 through March 6.

The Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge is a competition designed to inspire America’s mayors to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life. The Huffington Post and Bloomberg Philanthropies have partnered to give readers an opportunity to select their favorite idea among the 20 finalists. Click the grid here to learn more about the 20 finalists or scroll down to watch videos from each city.

Click the link above to cast your vote. If you need a reminder of what this is about, see here and here for previous blogging, and here for Mayor Parker’s pitch for Houston:

One Bin for All is a revolutionary idea for residents to discard all materials in one bin, treating “trash” as valuable assets, dramatically increasing recycling using game changing technologies.

Recycling, admittedly, is difficult. Though I am an avid recycler, I can be stumped by aluminum foil or a wet paper towel or a plastic straw. Not surprisingly, so are millions of citizens, and it is estimated that cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash.

[…]

This first-of-its-kind innovation uses technology in a way that has never been done before. Allowing technology and new process systems to sort household “trash” and derive an initial 55 percent diversion rate, and upwards of 75 percent with composting, anaerobic digestion and catalytic conversion (biomass-to-fuel) is more efficient and effective. The technologies (shredders, sensors, density separators and optical scanners) have been used previously in the waste, mining, or refining industries, but will be combined in a new process which will yield a much higher diversion rate. This system has the potential for cities across the globe to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make a significant contribution to improved air quality, provide an easy-to-use program for residents, save money and increase revenues.

Our innovation will:

  • Provide every residence with curbside One Bin for All services;
  • Decrease the volume of waste sent to landfills and increase recycling rates;
  • Improve air quality by eliminating truck routes and reducing methane emissions from landfills; and
  • Manage costs associated with waste collection and disposal and recycling, saving cities money.

By building the first total material resource recovery facility in the US, Houston has the opportunity to improve the health and quality of life of its citizens, divert more municipal solid waste than any other large City in the nation, save money, change the way citizens think about materials, reduce extraction of raw materials and influence other cities to embrace this transformation.

There’s a video over there as well, so click to see it and then click here to vote. You have until March 6 to cast your vote. Hair Balls has more.

More on metal recycling

The Chron has a followup story on metal recycling and hexavalent chromium.

Houston air experts plan to deepen their investigation into the air outside metal recycling companies after their measurements showed – apparently for the first time – that the businesses could be a source of potent fumes known to cause cancer.

“We are searching for money for more in depth testing, and also to get a feeling for what good controls would be,” said Loren Raun, an environmental statistician at Rice University, who works with the city of Houston.

[…]

Now the nation’s fourth largest city plans to expand its investigation of communities where the air may be affected. This week the Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention’s mobile air monitoring lab returns to service following maintenance. On one of its first assignments, it will go to Holmes Road Recycling in the south of the city. Managers there are about to test a new vacuum system that operates while a worker is torching: It pulls smoke through a cyclone system to remove particles.

“In theory, it should make a significant difference in smoke and particles from any facility using the equipment properly,” said Don Richner, an analytical chemist with the Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention.

If the new device makes a difference, the city could encourage other recyclers to employ it.

Another result of the testing is that Houston officials are questioning whether recyclers are exempt from the requirement to obtain air pollution permits. Businesses that pollute below a certain threshold are allowed to operate under what’s known as “Permit by Rule,” in which they state emissions are low. Pollution bureau chief Arturo Blanco said authorities will ask for proof.

Rice University’s Raun says researchers hope to return to the plants to test at a distance of one or two blocks. “We want to get a feel for what people farther out in the neighborhood are exposed to,” she said.

This would address a question raised by scientists that hexavalent chromium converts quickly to a less dangerous form of the metal. The city is collaborating with community groups, the University of Texas and Rice University in an application for a federal grant to pursue that research.

Background here. This sure seems like the sort of thing for which grant money ought to be granted. It’s groundbreaking research, and it could affect the way the EPA calculates the risks of air pollution. I look forward to seeing what their further tests find out.

Curbside composting

Way to go, Austin.

City officials are asking Austinites in 7,900 households in five parts of the city to separate their banana peels, egg shells, meat, chicken bones, milk cartons, leaves and any other organic material from their household trash and put the material into a new rolling garbage cart.

The one-year trial run will cost the city $485,000. That includes new green 96-gallon composting carts — the same size as the blue recycling bins that now dot the city. Residents also get indoor 2.4-gallon food scrap receptacles, the contents of which can be dumped into the green carts, and educational and promotional materials.

To combat the yuck factor, officials are distributing information about the reasons for composting, a natural process that breaks down organic materials into a nutrient-rich, soil-like material.

As usable as compost is, nearly half of the materials that end up in landfills can be composted. With a city goal to send no waste to landfills by 2040, compost collection is a natural next step, said Richard McHale, a manager at Austin Resource Recovery.

The city is not adding any equipment or staff for the program, McHale said.

Sanitation workers will pick up the compostable material weekly. But instead of hauling the stuff to the landfill, it will be taken to a private composting company just east of Texas 130.

[…]

A roughly yearlong restaurant composting pilot at 14 establishments wrapped up in the fall. At least 40 percent of landfill waste was diverted, and in some cases nearly 80 percent was, according to a presentation to the Zero Waste Advisory Commission in November by Resource Recovery waste diversion planner Woody Raine.

McHale said he hopes to expand the compost curbside program citywide within three years. He had no cost estimate for a citywide program. For now, city officials also won’t answer questions about how a citywide composting program would affect monthly utility bills.

“As we are able to determine participation and diversion amounts through the early phases of this initiative, we will be better able to determine any fiscal impacts the program will have when the program is fully implemented throughout the city,” Resource Recovery spokeswoman Lauren Hammond said. The department anticipates “that organics diverted from the landfill will help offset expenses related to curbside collection programs.”

The city of San Antonio has also done a pilot program for curbside compost collection, though I don’t know where that now stands. Austin has done some other things in recent years to encourage composting. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes. Houston does have separate collection for yard waste, but you have to use compostable bags that are not cheap and not terribly sturdy. Austin’s program is in the right direction, and it’s likely the way we’ll all have to go eventually. It will take awhile for people to get used to it, and I daresay some kind of fee structure that strongly incentivizes properly separating one’s trash will help spur that along. We compost at home, and really, it’s not that big a deal. I hope to see something like this in Houston in the near future.

Recycling pollution

This is unfortunate.

The calls to the city of Houston’s 311 help line came in the early morning and the middle of the night – complaints of red smoke, yellow smoke, explosions, fire, a child having trouble breathing.

Reports like these – 189 of them over the last five years – led Houston air authorities to discover a previously unrecognized and dangerous source of air pollution: metal recyclers and car crushers, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

The smoke comes from cutting metal with torches and from fire when vehicle gas tanks aren’t drained properly. Explosions can occur when propane tanks are fed into the maw of the crushers.

Descriptions of shattering noise, cracked walls and smoke were significant enough that the city had to “dedicate a good amount of effort responding to these complaints,” said Arturo Blanco, chief of the city’s Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention.

Subsequent testing outside five Houston metal recycling operations found dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium. Chrome VI, as it’s also called, is a high priority for air experts.

“People were complaining about smoke, and it turns out there were carcinogenic metals,” said Loren Roan, an environmental statistician at Rice University. “And we found them only around these facilities, not in other areas we tested, not even in other industrial areas of the city.”

When inhaled, hexa­valent chromium is deposited in the lungs, can penetrate cells and cause free radicals, which damage DNA, ultimately causing lung cancer. When California gained the authority to regulate air pollution hazards in the 1980s, hexavalent chromium shared top priority, along with benzene. The state considers Chrome VI one of the most potent carcinogens known.

[…]

Houston appears to be the first to examine metal emissions from the industry, and in so doing may have flagged a national problem. The Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate the facilities, though there are now 6,000 of them in the United States, according to Joe Picard, chief economist with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc.

You can see a map of metal recycling locations here – the east side is particularly full of them, with the stretch of 59 between I-10 and the North Loop being a hot spot. Clearly, this is something that is going to require action. I’m certain there are plenty of opportunities to do this in a way that creates less hazardous by-product, but such innovation is unlikely to come without external pressure, which is to say government regulation. If that makes metal recycling more expensive, then so be it. We’ll figure out how to adjust. Recycling is necessary, but so is not creating hazardous emissions. We have to be able to do both.

Compost that Christmas tree

Let your Christmas tree do some good after you get rid of it.

When that Christmas tree comes down this year, take a moment to imagine its next incarnation: Chipped up and mixed into soil, it might soon secure new grasses along some South Texas highway or sustain vegetable starts in someone’s garden.

Adding weathered plant material back into the soil is becoming the norm for a growing number of people who are purchasing and using compost.

Two decades ago Houston offered only a couple places to buy it; now there are more than 60. Beyond buying, more people are learning how to make compost themselves from clipped grass and wilted vegetables.

“We are in a high growth mode and poised to steamroll,” said Michael Virga, executive director of the U.S. Compost Council. It plans to debut a campaign this spring with a message aimed at landscapers, green builders and the public about poor soil quality and the importance of recycling food.

“Compost Camp” is offered by the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling. Urban Harvest, the Houston gardening nonprofit, offers classes in compost and soil.

[…]

Composting has grown significantly in Texas for a different reason, and it has a lot to do with the Texas Department of Transportation. It has become, it believes, the single largest purchaser of compost in the country.

In 1985, landscape architect Barrie Cogburn tried to help TxDOT determine why its freshly graded slopes so frequently slumped away in the rain, taking with them the department’s expensive plantings. Cogburn noticed that new topsoil brought in by subcontractors was often little more than finely ground rock.

At a workshop she learned just how much organic material was ending up in Texas landfills. “They have too much, and we don’t have enough,” she thought. “There has to be a way to come together on this.”

Cogburn and Scott McCoy of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality teamed up in an experiment adding compost to the transportation department’s soil.

They also added dairy manure that was piling up in Bosque County, polluting water all the way downstream to Waco. The results were favorable: TxDOT embankments started staying in place. And the organic material retained water, so the department had to irrigate less. The practice is now widespread.

To ensure that your tree is part of the circle of life and not needlessly taking up space in a landfill, you have to take it to a recycling center, or if you have city of Houston trash service you can leave it by your curb on a tree waste day. You can find a list of recycling centers here, and the Chron has a handy map here. Recycling centers will take trees through January 7. This is a no-brainer, so make sure you take advantage.

“One Bin For All” in the running for prize money

This happened before the election, which now seems as a remote a time as the 19th century.

Houston is one of 20 finalist cities from among the 305 nationwide that applied for a $5 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies for the boldest local initiative to address a national problem.

The city’s proposal, “Total Reuse — One Bin for All,” calls for the construction of a mega-recycling plant that could ultimately allow the city to recycle as much as 75 percent of all residential trash, up from just 14 percent now. More importantly to the average resident, it would allow you to throw all your garbage in a single can and have the city sort it out at the plant.

In the spring, Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce the grand-prize winner of the Mayors Challenge and four $1 million prize winners. This month a team of city officials is invited to attend the Bloomberg Ideas Camp, a two-day gathering in New York City during which they will collaborate with experts to prepare One Bin for All finalist application.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Parker’s statement. I like the idea of this and I am glad to see focus on Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate, but after I posted that first story I got some feedback from the Texas Campaign for the Environment, which is skeptical of this technology. The following was sent to me by Tyson Sowell to more fully explain their thinking on this:

Houston’s “one bin” waste reduction proposal: What exactly does this mean?

A few weeks ago the City of Houston’s Sustainability Department announced, to much fanfare, that they were considering a “One Bin” solution for collected recyclables, organics (like food waste), and garbage. In the meantime, City of Houston officials say they will keep working to expand single-stream recycling collection while they explore this other option. However, the technologies being mulled over are generally untested. Some technologies promoted by waste lobbyists as brave, new diversion techniques are actually destructive to the environment. While everybody likes innovative thinking, still, we have questions. Here are some questions we encourage Houstonians to ask about Houston’s “One Bin” proposal:

  • How has this technology worked elsewhere? We know that in other states and countries with materials recovery facilities which take in commingled trash and recycling (commingled MRF), they need either incineration or loopholes to reach meaningful “diversion” levels. What the city is proposing would include anaerobic digestion (AD; a process whereby microbes break down organic matter and produce methane to be used for energy) for organics and some of the paper; this is especially untested, and AD systems elsewhere are challenging to operate even with very controlled feedstocks and are very expensive to build. Lancaster, CA has signed a contract to try the technology the city is proposing, so why not wait to observe their performance before jumping in?
  • What will the markets be like for the recovered materials, and how do they compare with what we could get from expanded single-stream recycling? Historically, commingled MRF’s have to sell their paper and cardboard at lower prices because they are contaminated by being mixed in with garbage. The system envisioned here would put much of that paper into the AD, but
    is this a truly “higher and better use” than recycling? Are we saying that Houston is giving up on paper recycling? If so, the city needs to demonstrate why AD is a higher and better use for paper than recycling. TCE Executive Director Robin Schneider visited an out-of-state facility that separates recyclables mixed with trash and the valuable cardboard was clearly degraded.
  • How much would this cost? In particular, what would be the impact on tipping fees? Facilities of this sort in California have tipping fees more than 3 times what we are charged locally. In Dallas they were talking about these facilities in the $100 million range, but since something like this has never been built, we have no idea what cost overruns might look like, or what the long-term contractual obligations for the city might end up being. Ask the cities locked into ugly incinerator contracts from the ‘70s, and they’ll tell you that when it comes to trash technologies, extreme caution is crucial for local governments. Harrisburg PA, for example, has gone into bankruptcy because it went whole hog for what was supposed to be a cure-all incinerator. We need to show great care and proceed slowly before buying into this alleged solution to all of our diversion problems.
  • What will be the full long-term impact on reduction and reuse? Big increases in recycling are good, but not as good as big decreases in total discards. There is an ethical argument that encouraging throwaway mindsets and a disposable culture is absolutely unacceptable. Even under a less strict ethic, this proposal seems to do nothing to encourage reduction and reuse, and may even create incentives to throw things away. How does this proposal ensure that we are using fewer resources and consuming less stuff—not just recycling more—in the long-run?
  • Is this about the best use of our resources, or just the best we expect from Houston? We should not assume that Houston can’t recycle, or that folks here just don’t care enough. Sure, Houston is no San Francisco, but neither is Fresno, and Fresno has a 75% diversion rate without the need for risky new technologies. Fairfax County, Virginia is not setting the world on fire with 42%, but that is still 3 times higher than what we are doing in Houston right now. Orange County, North Carolina is at 61% waste reduction, and Nashville reduced waste by 30% in just three years. Their plan is to get to 60% reduction by 2018, and they are well on their way. Some of these communities—including San Francisco—are curious about the technology proposed here as a means of dealing with what is left over after recycling, composting, reduction, reuse and other diversion activities. Why shouldn’t we follow this same path by passing a Zero Waste Plan with strong benchmarks, putting proven policies in place and then circling back to these proposals once we have finished the basics and other communities have tested this new technology for us?

It be ars repeating that Laura Spanjian, the City’s Director of Sustainability, has made it clear that Houston will continue expanding curbside single-stream service. Houston has more households without curbside recycling than any in Texas and almost any big city in the country. It is clear that we need big changes, that they will not happen overnight and that we will need to be creative and flexible if we are going to catch up to where we ought to be. The least renewable resource of them all is time, but haste on waste policy can mean doing much more harm than good. These questions and others seek to ensure that our planet is the priority, and that Houston reaches true sustainability in a safe, proven and truly innovative fashion.

Some good questions to ponder, and I intend to have a conversation with Laura Spanjian about this in the near future to hear some more answers. The more discussion we have about this, the better. CultureMap has more.

One bin to rule them all

This would be an innovative approach to deal with Houston’s unacceptably low recycling rate.

Under what is being called “Total Reuse: One Bin for All,” residents would wheel everything to the curb in one barrel and let the city sort it out.

If Houston can find a private-sector partner to help it build what could be a $100 million plant that would separate bottles from cans from paper from food from e-waste from yard clippings, the city would vault from one of the nation’s laggards in municipal recycling to one of the paragons.

[…]

City solid waste officials traveled to Germany last year to look at a facility there. Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director, toured a plant this year in the city of Roseville, in northern California, that she said is, perhaps, the closest thing in the country to what Houston envisions. The Clinton Climate Initiative has lent Houston a full-time expert for free to help review the technology.

The plant would have conveyor belts, ballistic shredders, optical scanners, density separators and other technologies to sift from the contents of your trash can everything that can be recycled. At peak performance, the city could resell some of the dry materials and compost the food, or even put it into a digester that produces methane gas to power the facility. While all of these technologies have been put to widespread use, they have not been integrated into the kind of catch-all operation Houston envisions, Spanjian said.

“It relies on technology to look at every single material and decide whether that can be reused,” she said.

This is all very much in the conceptual phase right now. There’s no proposal and no funding mechanism for anything. I like the idea, and one reason why is because people are often very bad about separating trash from recyclables on their own, at least in public venues. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an outdoor event in Houston that had “garbage” bins and “recycling” bins whose contents weren’t indistinguishable. People either don’t notice, can’t tell the difference, or just don’t care. I recognize that’s not the problem this is designed to solve, but it is part of it. I hope this pans out, it would be a big step forward and could only enhance our coolness factor, too. Swamplot has more.

More on the landfills of Waller County

Last July I wrote about a proposed landfill in Waller County near Hempstead and the residents who are fighting against it. The Statesman has an update on the story.

In many ways, the landfill fight in this rural Texas town two hours east of Austin has a standard shape: An out-of-state corporation is accused of siting an unsightly dump near a largely poor, largely minority community. The landfill company says the accusations are unfair and that the dump will contribute jobs to a stricken area.

The twist here is one of the background players.

Glenn Shankle — the former executive director of the state environmental agency and a lobbyist for landfill companies himself, including one whose permit for a radioactive waste dump he controversially supported just before leaving said agency — is now a hired gun for the community.

Unlikely as the partnership may be, Shankle, 59, hobbled by old track injuries suffered as a runner at then-Kealing Junior High School, may be the opposition’s best hope.

In Shankle’s telling, over a breakfast of heavily buttered toast, bacon and a Dr Pepper in downtown Austin, he resisted the community group gig when first approached about it.

“I told them at the time I don’t do protest work,” he said.

He had grown leery, after a career at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, of the methods of environmental groups, he said, and was unsure that he could fight a landfill while also serving as a landfill lobbyist.

“Once you predominantly do industry work, it puts you in an awkward situation,” he said.

Having survived some health scares, however, he had been casting about how he ought to fulfill God’s plan, as he put it. Then, family members who had attended Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college eight miles outside of Hempstead, opposed the landfill and pressed him to intervene.

“I slept on it and prayed on it,” he said. His conclusion: Prairie View should not suffer because of a “scar” to the landscape.

[…]

Landfill company Green Group Holdings CEO Ernest Kaufmann said no more than 250 acres of the 723-acre site will be dedicated to the landfill, which will hold municipal waste from a 40-mile radius around the landfill — with an eye to serving the ever-growing Houston market. Kaufmann said its operation could last roughly 40 years.

“We’re not taking hazardous waste. We’re not taking sewage sludge,” said Kaufmann, whose company calls the project Pintail. The rest of the land might be used for ranching, recreational purposes, as an industrial park or left as open space. The company, which says it will invest millions of dollars in the project, has proposed paying fees to Waller County for each ton of waste collected and a donation of $150,000 for county fire safety equipment.

It estimates the project will create at least 20 full-time jobs at the landfill.

“This is not in a disadvantaged neighborhood,” he continued. “What you have here is some very wealthy people stirring that up. We pay a lot of attention to where we locate facilities and who we’re impacting and who we’re not impacting.”

Huntsinger and others are skeptical of the company’s pledges because, they say, Green Group could sell its permit.

Huntsinger is Bill Huntsinger, a retired Houston real estate guy who moved to Hempstead and is funding the Stop Highway 6 Landfill effort. Green Group has an array of high-priced lobbyists working for it, and rather to my surprise has hired environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn as a consultant. The main thing I get from this story is that the process hasn’t advanced much in the past year and may not advance any further this year, as consideration of the landfill application may happen in 2013. I said last time and I’ll say again, I think this is a bad idea. We shouldn’t be in the business of building more landfills, we should be in the business of waste reduction so that we don’t need more landfills. I wish I had faith that the TCEQ would give this a very critical review, but I don’t. I fear we’ll eventually be stuck with it.