Going green to save some green

The city of Houston has made significant investments in energy savings.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors named Mayor Annise Parker the winner of Mayors’ Climate Protection Award last year for green building initiatives that incentivize conservation and energy-efficient design features.

“We don’t do it just because we get attention. We do it because it’s been good for the city’s bottom line,” Parker told City Council in introducing Laura Spanjian, whom Parker hired two years ago to fill the director of sustainability position she created.

Spanjian walked Council through a long list of the city’s green initiatives that included:

A bike share program scheduled to expand to 200 bikes at 20 kiosks in downtown, Montrose, the Heights, Texas Medical Center and the Museum District by year’s end.

Four wind turbines to be placed atop the Houston Permitting Center on Washington Avenue.

A plan to retrofit 297 city buildings to reduce energy use by 30 percent. Energy savings are expected to cover the cost of the alterations within a decade.

Near completion of replacement of incandescent bulbs at the city’s 2,450 intersections with traffic signals with LEDs, which are expected to cut energy bills by $3.6 million a year.

A lot of this investment has been paid for with federal stimulus dollars, which is important because the city’s budget, like those of many other cities, can’t often afford the up front cost of such investments. Taking advantage of those funds while they were available was smart and will pay off for years to come.

[CM Oliver] Pennington and others also asked about the most visible of green initiatives – recycling. More than a third of the city’s homes do not have curbside recycling pickup. Of those that do, only half have the 96-gallon containers.

“The challenge is recycling costs more money than picking up trash. Since we’re the only major city in America without a garbage fee, there is no economic incentive. The constraint is entirely budgetary,” Parker said.

I’ve asked about that before as well. Basically, the city generates revenue from the recyclables they collect, and when they have enough of that revenue they buy another truck to do the single stream curbside collection, thus expanding the service. I was going to say that I had not heard of any recent expansion announcements or other news concerning the program, but now I have.

[Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes] said that if Council would agree to a recycling fee of $3.75 to $4 a month per household, though, by the end of the year he could have a 96-gallon green recycling barrel at every home in the city and the people and trucks in place to pick it up.

That would be “instead of whenever” if he cannot get the fee, he said. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done without charging households directly.

In fact, Hayes said, he plans to bring the big green barrels to 30,000 to 50,000 additional homes in the coming year. He won’t say which neighborhoods are first in line until he makes a formal proposal later this spring. The city picks up garbage at 375,000 homes. Currently 105,000 homes have single-stream recycling — the big green barrels. Another 100,000 homes have dual stream recycling — the small bins. Residents have been clamoring for expansion of recycling.


On Wednesday’s agenda, Hayes is asking Council for $87,500 for a study “to determine the viability and fiscal incentives of establishing an Enterprise Fund for certain Solid Waste Operations…”

An enterprise fund separates an operation from the general fund. That means it is no longer funded by property and sales taxes. But the fund takes in money through fees. Current examples include the city’s airport and water systems, which charge customers, not taxpayers, to fund their operations.

The proposed study would examine whether to create an enterprise fund to cover the city’s three solid waste transfer stations. The stations are drop-off points for the trucks that make curbside collections and the pickup sites for much larger trucks that haul the garbage off to a landfill. The stations save city and company trucks from having to drive clear across the city to a landfill each time they fill up. The city already charges the companies that use the transfer stations.

If the study recommends an enterprise fund and the Council approves one, the city’s Solid Waste Management Department would keep the money the users pay instead of forwarding it to the city’s treasury.

I know a lot of people in neighborhoods that don’t have single stream recycling that would gladly pay the fee to get it, but I wouldn’t claim that’s a representative sample. I suspect the idea would be well received, but we’ll know more after today’s Council meeting. What do you think about the idea?

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3 Responses to Going green to save some green

  1. Robert Nagle says:

    As far as I know, recycling at apartments is nonexistent except at these locations. http://www.haaonline.org/GoGreenCommunities/ At my apartment, they have a recycling trash dumpster, but keep it locked 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

    I’d be curious to know about 1)how much more it costs the apartment complex to have recycling and 2)what measures the city can do to increase the number of apartments which do recycling.

  2. Tyson Sowell says:

    There is no doubt about it; the city needs to expand its recycling services. With one-third of city serviced residents left out in the cold and only a third with single-stream services, not to mention 406,643 households without city services, the city needs a comprehensive plan for waste management. We cannot keep using ad hoc methods for expanding recycling hoping that one day we will get coverage and a better quality of life for all.

    Houston is expected to grow 33% by 2040, that’s a population increase of 700,000 in the city proper. Waste is a growing problem for Houston.

    Constantly, the excuse that the city cannot increase recycling services due to its lack of a waste fee is used to continue the status quo when it comes to this basic and most obvious thing the city can do to improve its “green” image. If this is truly the reason Houstonians cannot get recycling then city officials need to do something about it.

    If a fee is what the city needs to do this, so be it. But instituting a top down fee without taking into account what Houstonians want and what they are willing to tolerate is the wrong way to do it. This is why Houston needs to look at the state of recycling relative to a 90% waste diversion, look at what people are willing to tolerate regarding a fee, and create a long-term plan to get there.

    It is Texas Campaign for the Environment’s (TCE) belief that although $3.75 per month is a nominal amount to expand recycling to everyone, calling it a recycling fee is a mistake. Recycling, because most folks in Houston do not have adequate access to it, is not ingrained in Houston society. Therefore, a “recycling fee” is a hard sell to most folks who do not see the value in it.

    The fee should be called a “waste fee” or “garbage fee.” The argument from the city to not call it this has been that people will be opposed to this because they are used to receiving garbage services for free, but have not, some of them, also been receiving recycling services for free? There is no evidence for the argument by the city that folks will oppose a “waste fee” or “garbage fee.” If a study is done to develop a long-term plan for waste and the city discovers evidence for their argument, so be it. But making assertions about public attitudes without evidence is irresponsible.

    Additionally, a flat fee is regressive and provides no incentive to recycle. TCE would also like the city to consider a Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) fee structure. This would incentive folks to recycle more and garbage less and, perhaps, encourage them to consume less. The fee could be capped and people would pay less as they recycle more, giving folks control over how much they pay for waste management. Additionally, the fee could be phased in as folks received their single-stream cart. So, folks who do not have a 96 gallon cart right now, would not be subject to the fee but once they have the ability to control their fee, i.e. have a cart, then they would be subject to the fee.

    Houston needs a comprehensive, long-term plan for waste management. Houston needs recycling.

    You are elected to office to serve the interests of Houstonians, those Houstonians want recycling, figure out how to get it for them. Come up with a long-term plan to get Houston to a 90% waste diversion from landfills! Expand recycling to all households!

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