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Houston's Bold Recycling Plan: No More Separating

The city of Houston, which recycles only 6 percent of the waste it collects, has a new idea to improve that figure: Eliminate that extra blue bin altogether.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Glenn Bailey cleans out a city of Houston recycling truck on March 18.

The city of Houston, which recycles only 6 percent of the waste it collects, has a bold idea to improve that figure: Eliminate that extra blue bin altogether.

Under the “One Bin for All” proposal the city is considering, Houston residents would not need to separate their paper, cardboard and soda cans from the rest of their trash. Everything will go in one giant — and most likely green — bin to be sorted elsewhere.

The idea won the city a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, a project of New York City’s former mayor. But there are questions about whether the program will work, and many environmental activists fear it could discourage people from thinking about what — and how much — they throw away.

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. 

Pasternak has also studied the one-bin idea and found that it could be doable, but only in some cases. Office buildings tend to throw out a lot of paper and cardboard, so the strategy would work for commercial waste collection. But waste from residential homes is another matter. "It's going to be wetter and just a lot messier to sort out," he said. 

Other Texas cities are moving in a different direction. In Austin, nearly 8 percent of households are participating in a pilot program in which they separate food waste from the rest of their trash so it can be sent to a composter. For now, composters are happy to take the waste free of charge because there is a strong market for local compost, said Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery. Eventually, the city hopes to expand the program to all its residents. That will require the city to buy $50 compost bins for more than 150,000 households but also save some money in landfill fees, which are about $21 per ton. 

But even in Austin, the recycling rate is just 24 percent, and the city charges residents more than $100 a year for its pickup services. Houston households pay nothing, and close to half still do not even have the conventional blue recycling bins.

Spanjian said the one-bin concept is not a done deal. Residents could be asked to separate their food waste, put it in a loose bag and place it in a bin on top of the recyclables. That would still allow for cost savings by eliminating multiple truck routes.

While even the most progressive cities struggle to achieve high recycling rates, “we will get all of the city of Houston’s recycling,” she said. “Every single bit. Isn’t that exciting?”

Disclosure: At the time of publication, the Texas A&M University System was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.) 

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