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May 5th, 2014:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A step forward for the historic Astrodome

From CultureMap:

Not historic but still standing

Efforts to make the Astrodome a State Antiquities Landmark took a key step forward Tuesday as the state Antiquities Advisory Board voted unanimously to forward the application to the Texas Historical Commission. Such a designation would prevent the Astrodome from being altered or demolished without approval from the commission.

The commission will make a final decision on the application in July — and that could be the impetus (finally) for a frank and serious discussion on what to do with the world’s first domed stadium.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett plans to hold a large “stakeholders’ meeting” next month, bringing RodeoHouston and Houston Texans officials, preservationists and a host of interested parties on both sides to discuss “where to go from here,” said spokesman Joe Stinebaker. Emmett also plans to hold public meetings around Houston in an attempt to build consensus toward a solution that can be presented to the historical commission this summer.

“There is no move to tear down the Dome,” Stinebaker said. “But historical designation could tie the county’s hands in making it more difficult and expensive to do anything.”

Backers of efforts to save the Astrodome believe it cleared a “major hurdle” Tuesday with the advisory commission’s vote. “There’s no going back now,” an elated Ted Powell said in a telephone interview from Fort Worth after the vote.

[…]

Once an application is filed, no changes can be made to a structure under consideration during the review process, Texas Historical Commission spokeswoman Debbi Head told CultureMap, so the Astrodome has technically been protected from major changes or demolition while the process for antiquities landmark designation winds its way toward a resolution.

But Powell believes the vote signals an important turning point for the Dome’s future. “It brings qualified folks to the table to make sure the historical integrity (of the building) is preserved,” he said.

See here for the background. Designating the Astrodome as a historic structure doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with it, nor does it solve the problem of how to pay for whatever needs to be done. It does keep the Astrodome standing, which perhaps adds a bit more incentive to find those solutions. That’s a good thing. I don’t know how this ends, but I won’t complain about giving the Astrodome a reason to exist.

HISD does have a role to play in the Bush Foundation literacy effort

I learned this from a Terry Grier op-ed in the Chron.

That’s why last week’s release of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation’s “Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action,” was such a welcome event.

The foundation’s plan to unite educators, government and community programs – plus human and financial capital – in a mission of wiping out illiteracy is just the kind of comprehensive approach required. We are proud to be partners in this effort.

While HISD remains committed to decentralization – and many of our schools are showing success in their respective reading programs – Literacy By 3 will be a district-driven initiative with unwavering, uniform standards and accountability. Starting this summer, a literacy leader will be trained for each HISD campus. We will employ phonics-based instruction, strict district measurements of reading levels and growth, and we will combine those with real-world projects.

At the same time, our movement toward a digital transformation of classrooms will allow teachers greater ability to personalize learning – and reading is a highly personal, developmental skill. Not one rigid method or time frame fits all, especially when you’re dealing with the challenges of multiple languages and poverty.

What is a uniformly proven asset, though, is exposure to libraries, books in the home and to people who read. That’s where you come in. We hope to create an awareness campaign that enlists thousands of volunteers who will show youngsters that reading is not only a basic survival skill, but a rewarding part of life. We will recruit community members to read with students one-on-one, to share their own favorite books and reading lists, to conduct and contribute to book drives to help enrich schools and homes.

See here and here for the background. At least now I know that there is some kind of official interaction between HISD and the Barbara Bush Foundation on this. I still haven’t found a copy of their report, but at least I know that much.

It’s not Tesla that’s asking for special treatment

A couple of auto dealers take to the op-ed pages to argue that up is in fact down.

The motor vehicle franchise laws in place do not in any way hinder innovation; instead they foster the competition that benefits consumers.

One motor vehicle manufacturer, Tesla Motors, has been seeking an exemption from the franchise laws that require new motor vehicles sold in Texas be sold through a franchised dealer. Franchise laws exist to prevent monopolies and promote competition in vehicle pricing and service to the consumer, provide for the efficient distribution of vehicles and service across the wide geographic area that is our state, and provide a local presence where Texas consumers can have service, warranty and recall work performed even in cases when a manufacturer ceases to do business.

Nothing in state law is currently preventing the delivery of new Tesla vehicles from California to the citizens of the state of Texas who wish to purchase them online. Nothing in state law prevents Tesla from using the exact same model it is using today, with gallery stores and service facilities at other locations, so long as any retail presence is operated through a franchised dealer of Tesla’s choosing.

As business owners, we can tell you first-hand that franchised motor vehicle dealers in Texas are more than eager to help Tesla succeed. In fact, numerous Texas dealers have contacted Tesla seeking an opportunity to retail their vehicles subject to Tesla’s desires. Not only will the franchised dealer absorb any capital outlays required for the Tesla model, but we also believe the franchised dealer can help Tesla sell many more vehicles over the long term.

Increased sales volume without the cost burden is a winning business model, which is why every other major auto manufacturer who sells in Texas participates in the model (not to mention those who already sell electric vehicles).

So why the request for special treatment just for Tesla?

Considering the value of the consumer-protection based system currently in place and the fact that Tesla Motors now has the opportunity to sell its cars to Texans, we do not see any compelling rationale to provide special treatment for Tesla. Other manufacturers produce electric vehicles.

See here and here for the background. Sorry, but it’s the dealers that are asking for special treatment by forcing Tesla to include them in their business model. Plenty of manufacturers are allowed to sell directly to customers. I get the dangers of vertical integration, but the existence of Apple stores doesn’t seem to have hindered innovation in the smartphone market. How would letting Tesla sell directly to customers affect innovation in the automobile market? Frankly, if anything I’d expect it to spur innovation, as it might force a reconsideration in how cars are marketed, sold, and maintained. I’m sorry, but someone who doesn’t benefit from the current setup is going to have to explain to me why it shouldn’t be changed for me to accept the plausibility of that argument.