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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?

Environmental report card for Congressional Texas

From the Inbox:

The Texas League of Conservation Voters highlighted Texas’ leadership and failures on national environmental issues, based on today’s release of the League of Conservation Voters 2011 National Environmental Scorecard.

The 2011 National Environmental Scorecard grades Congress’ work as the ‘most anti-environmental session of the U.S. House of Representatives in history.’

“We’re fortunate to have a great champion for the environment in Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin). Sadly, the same cannot be said for Rep. Cuellar (D-Laredo) who far too often sided against the environment and against public health.  His votes on global warming, pesticide pollution and offshore drilling safety placed Rep. Cuellar much more in line with the Republican House majority and corporate polluters than for the constituents who elected him,” said David Weinberg, Executive Director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters.

The 2011 National Environmental Scorecard includes 11 Senate and a record 35 House votes on issues ranging from public health protections to clean energy to land and wildlife conservation.

This year, 31 senators earned a perfect 100 percent score, while in the House 24 members earned a perfect 100 percent score.  Rep. Doggett notched the highest score in the Texas delegation with 97 percent.  Rep. Cuellar earned the lowest score among the Texas Democratic delegation with 51 percent.  The average Texas House Republican score was 7 percent.

In the Senate, 13 senators earned an appalling 0 percent score, while in the House four members earned a 0 percent score. The Texas Senate delegation rounded out the bottom of the barrel among Senate delegations by state with an abysmal 9 percent score; only four other states’ Senate delegation scored lower.

For over 40 years, the National Environmental Scorecard issued by LCV has been the nationally accepted yardstick used to rate members of Congress on environmental, public health and energy issues. The full 2011 National Environmental Scorecard can be found at www.lcv.org/scorecard.

The Texas League of Conservation Voters issues its own scorecard on state lawmakers. Its 2011 scorecard can be found online at www.tlcv.org/scorecards.

The scorecard itself can be found here. In fairness to Rep. Cuellar, his 2011 score was an 88, though his lifetime mark of 57 is the lowest among the Democrats from Texas. It must also be noted that 20 of the 23 Texas Republicans in Congress scored lower than 10. The great irony is that one of the three Congressional Rs to score above 10% was none other than Smokey Joe Barton. He, along with Reps. Kay Granger and Bill Flores, achieved the lofty score of 11% by voting correctly on four of the 35 bills the LCV tracked. I never thought I’d see the day when Smokey Joe would be the greenest Republican in Texas. Anyway, go read the report to see what the bills of interest were and who did what. Forrest Wilder has more.

When winning means not getting pulverized

By that measure, this was a good session for environmentalists.

For environmental activists, the legislative session looked to be a grim one as it got under way in January. Keen on regulating businesses, they had feared that a body empowered by the 2010 elections to cut government oversight would drastically loosen environmental rules.

Now some of them feel as if they had dodged a disaster.

With the major exception of the budget, which slashes money for state parks and environmental enforcement, as it does for most government work, the Legislature finished up its regular session even passing some laws sought by environmentalists.

Among the pieces of legislation sent for the governor’s signature: one that would prevent homeowners associations from penalizing residents with solar panels, a measure that will force companies to tell the state which fluids they pump underground to recover natural gas in a process called fracking and one that creates a television recycling program .

[…]

“A lot more in the way of bad environmental legislation could have passed and did not,” said David Weinberg , director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters . “It was a pretty big victory in terms of what didn’t happen. This was as pro-industry a Legislature as Texas may ever see.”

I noted the TV recycling bill the other day. It still hasn’t been signed yet, so I’d hold off on popping any corks until then. But yes, if you feel the need to look for small nuggets of good in the deep cesspool of suck that was this session, environmental stuff and innocence matters would count. Beyond that, there ain’t much.

The Dirty Dozen

From the inbox:

Today, the national League of Conservation Voters (LCV), which works to turn environmental values into national priorities, announced the inaugural state-level Dirty Dozen program. Rick Perry is one of 12 candidates for state office from around the country named to the list for his consistent stances against clean energy politics and conservation initiatives. The Texas League of Conservation Voters will work to defeat Rick Perry during the remaining months of the election cycle.

“Rick Perry has consistently put corporate polluters and other special interests ahead of protecting our natural resources and working to make Texas a leader in the new clean energy economy,” said David Weinberg, Executive Director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters. “Being named to the Dirty Dozen should put Rick Perry on notice; voters in Texas won’t stand for a Governor who fails to fight for a cleaner, healthier future.”

The full press release is here, and the full list of offenders is here. Normally, the LCV’s “Dirty Dozen” targets candidates for Congress and the Senate – this is their first foray into state campaigns for this purpose. Trail Blazers and The Hill have more.

Lawmakers ask TCEQ to help plants comply with EPA

This is a good idea.

After a lobbying push by oil giants, a bipartisan group of Texas legislators have asked state environmental regulators to quickly solve a permit dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that has left some of the nation’s largest oil refineries in operating limbo.

A letter signed by 46 legislators is the latest indication that while Gov. Rick Perry and his Republican supporters are ready and willing to wage war with Washington on everything from environmental regulation to education spending, some battles are wearing on the industries that have helped Texas weather the recession.

You can see the letter here; it has 29 Republican signers and 17 Democrats, with none of the latter coming from Harris County. Basically, they ask the TCEQ to offer all possible assistance to any plant that has a flex permit and wants to get in compliance now with the EPA rather than wait for all the litigation to conclude. Seems perfectly sensible to me. For all the chest-thumping and saber-rattling we’ve seen lately – and there’s plenty of it in the story, too – sometimes you just have to be practical.

Richard Hyde, TCEQ’s deputy director of permitting and registration, said the agency has been trying for months to find a structure that will be acceptable to the EPA, but has so far failed. In the meantime, at least three critical projects are on hold, including a major upgrade at the Motiva Enterprises LLC refinery in Port Arthur, Hyde said.

“We’re trying to work out an agreement with EPA that we can provide to those companies that will give them some certainty,” Hyde said. “This issue is totally a federal government issue.”

The EPA says it too is being approached by companies seeking federally approved permits, Al Armendariz, the EPA’s director of the region that oversees Texas, said in an e-mailed statement. “EPA encourages TCEQ to quickly provide flexible permit holders a pathway forward,” he added.

David Weinberg, executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, a group that supports the EPA’s ruling on the flexible permits, said the letter and industry’s pressure indicates companies want a quick resolution.

“Valero is one of the largest flexible permit holders,” Weinberg said. “The fact that they’re rallying to get TCEQ to work tells you that what the governor is doing is not working.”

Weinberg alerted me to the story and sent me the link to the letter; the TLCV blogged about it here. Hopefully these companies will get their issues settled quickly, and others will want to follow suit as a result. We’ll see how it goes.