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High Hopes Mix With Skepticism for Houston's "One Bin for All" Plan

The city of Houston hopes to increase recycling rates by letting residents toss everything into the same bin and sorting it out later. Critics argue that similar approaches have failed.

Glenn Bailey cleans out a city of Houston recycling truck on March 18.

Proponents of Houston’s ambitious plan to increase recycling call it the future of waste management. To detractors, it’s just a waste.

Under the planned One Bin for All program, Houston residents would not need to separate glass, plastic and paper from food and other garbage. Instead, everything would go into one bin and get sorted after arrival at a mixed waste processing facility.

Thursday is the deadline for private companies to submit bids to the city to build and run the facility. The bid guidelines call for a 75 percent diversion rate — that is, only 25 percent of solid waste should end up in landfills. The rest would be recycled, composted or converted into energy sources.

Currently, the city recycles 6 percent of its waste and diverts 19 percent overall, mostly lawn waste. Those numbers are well below state and national averages.

The One Bin for All plan, which the city first proposed in 2012, won a $1 million prize from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge in 2013. But it has also drawn criticism from environmentalists and solid waste experts, who argue that mixed waste processing facilities have never been able to achieve such lofty diversion goals. One major obstacle for mixed waste systems is that recyclable materials contaminated by food waste are less marketable, and may end up in landfills or being burned for fuel, rather than recycled. 

“They cannot point to a single facility right now that is getting above 30 percent diversion,” said Melanie Scruggs, the Houston program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. The organization is expected to a release a report on Thursday harshly criticizing the Houston plan’s environmental impact and detailing the failures of similar operations in places like Chicago, California and North Carolina.

“From the perspective of materials management, from the perspective of recovering recyclables in an optimal way for purposes of marketing, this is not the best way to go,” said Allen Hershkowitz, director of the solid waste program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But proponents of One Bin for All argue that advances in sorting technology will allow Houston to succeed where other cities have not.

Those other programs were using older technology, said Laura Spanjian, Houston’s director of sustainability, who pointed out that the trend in recycling has been from separation to single-stream. In an email, she added, “Now, we believe technology has advanced again and is ready to address full commingling and the bulk of the remainder of the waste stream.” 

Spanjian pointed to a brand-new facility in Montgomery, Alabama, as proof that a one-bin system can work. Kyle Mowitz, the CEO of Infinitus Energy, which runs the Montgomery facility, said it has achieved 60 percent diversion since opening in April.

“I would’ve never done this project three years ago,” he said.“The technology wasn’t there.” Recent advances in optical technology and air density classification, Mowitz said, have “gone through the roof,” making mixed waste processing more practical.

“This is really the first facility in the country that’s doing what we’re doing.”

Mowitz, who said he expects to start turning a profit over the next year, added that the diversion rate should go up once the facility adds an anaerobic digestion system, in which microorganisms break down organic waste that might otherwise end up in landfills. The Houston plan also calls for anaerobic digestion. Critics argue that the technique may not work for unsorted municipal solid waste streams, which lack the uniformity that the microorganisms prefer.  

“The problem is the critters are very finicky,” said Reid Lifset, a researcher at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “If you don’t give them the organic materials they want, it’s hard to run a successful process.” 

Paper and steel industry groups have opposed One Bin for All. In a letter to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who supprts the plan, Gregory L. Crawford, executive director of the Steel Recycling Institute, which represents steel manufacturers, warned that the program “would produce unacceptable levels of contamination” in steel cans. 

Mowitz disputed that argument, saying the Montgomery facility has had no problem selling recyclables “at a premium.” 

One Bin for All would put Houston on a very different course from other Texas cities, like Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, which have adopted so-called zero-waste plans to reduce waste through curbside pickup of separate recycling, compost and garbage bins.

Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, said the city had been approached about switching to a mixed waste system, but wasn’t interested.

“What they’re promising hasn’t been proven in reality anywhere in the U.S.,” he said. “What One Bin for All does is take responsibility away from the citizen.”

For Spanjian, the fact that the one-bin approach hasn’t been tried elsewhere in Texas is part of the appeal.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in trying to do something different,” she said. “If we’re successful, it will really be a trend that other cities follow.”  

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