There's been talk for a long time now that neighborhoods that have poor participation rates with curbside recycling might lose the service, and now that day of reckoning is at hand.
Harry Hayes, the city's solid waste director, recently sent letters to residents in 43 Houston neighborhoods, threatening to stop collecting their recyclables.
The roughly 23,000 households were told that they must improve their participation rates to prove that servicing their neighborhoods is worth the cost, particularly in light of high diesel fuel prices.
Participation in those neighborhoods, city officials say, has fallen below 10 percent, with some as low as 2 percent. Other areas see as high as 70 percent participation, according to a 2006 survey.
"In too many cases, the department's trucks must drive through entire neighborhoods to collect only a few bins," Hayes wrote in the letter to residents. "Those neighborhoods that do not improve their set-out rates will be dropped from the program at the end of this calendar year."
Hayes' department offers curbside service to about 160,000 households, or about 40 percent of Houstonians who get city trash service.
The city is only taking this step after a public relations campaign called Go Green Houston failed to get those neighborhoods and others to improve more dramatically.
City Councilwoman Wanda Adams, a former solid waste department administrative staffer and a strong recycling advocate, said she is concerned some Houstonians may lose the service. She said the department should focus more on educating people to participate.
Adams suggested more public-service announcements, events at schools and more visible promotion. She also wants a special division focused solely on recycling.
"When you have a breakdown in education and no one is focusing on the recycling program, participation rates will drop," she said. "There has to be a consistency in education."
The Chron editorializes about this today.
Less service, higher cost," was the damning refrain last year when City Council considered imposing a garbage collection fee.
The $42 annual fee per household would have raised as much as $19 million for recycling technology and other environmental projects. But the plan was quickly crushed.
By backing down, council helped seal Houston's place as the only major U.S city in which residents can generate outsized mountains of household waste and -- without further accountability -- somehow have it disappear. Council needs to revisit the collection plan, which all other American cities know is the cost of keeping solid waste under control.
Like Houston, other U.S. cities collect property taxes. Yet Houston might be alone in wholly depending on its general fund -- which pays for fire and police protection -- to bear the cost of garbage pickup.
There's some dispute about the figures, but a recent report by the trade newspaper Waste News alleges our city is the worst nationwide at managing its own garbage.
[C]ity leaders and taxpayers both bear responsibility for Houston's environment. Recycling isn't just some feel-good, millennialist fad. It shrinks the noxious landfills that no one wants in their backyards. It slashes the environmental and financial cost of creating plastic, glass and paper products.
It also forces households to be mindful of the waste stream they churn out every day. All that trash has to go somewhere. Someone has to pick it up, transport it and dispose of it.
Most Americans have got the hang of this notion. Austin, for example, charges a separate garbage fee. And its municipal trash cans hold 30 gallons of trash. Create more trash than that, and you pay extra for someone to dispose of it. Only in Houston do trash cans hold 90 gallons, to be emptied at no extra cost.
The obvious answer is instituting a separate trash-collection fee. But if "Houston culture" truly cannot muster the civic responsibility for its trash that every other city accepts, it's up to city leaders to find alternatives.
Many would protest at first, but genuine leaders, starting with Mayor White, should be able to explain and stand firm on questions of sound municipal management.