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Environmental Justice Advocates Question Houston's Recycling Plan

As Houston considers a radical new plan for boosting its dismally low recycling rate, some critics worry that it will continue the legacy of putting waste facilities in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
The McCarty Road Landfill in northeast Houston. As Houston considers a new plan for boosting its low recycling rate, some critics worry that it will continue the legacy of putting waste facilities in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

HOUSTON — The McCarty Road Landfill is an unwelcome mountain in this flat city: The giant mound covered by sand and grass towers over the Settegast neighborhood of northeast Houston.

“It’s the tallest man-made structure in this area, hands down,” Robert D. Bullard, the dean of the school of public affairs at Texas Southern University, said as he drove through the rundown houses and vacant lots in the mostly low-income, minority neighborhood that surrounds the landfill.

Little has changed in the three decades since Bullard completed a study showing that most of Houston’s waste facilities — landfills, incinerators and transfer stations — were located in predominantly minority neighborhoods. As the city considers a radical new plan for boosting its dismally low recycling rate — one that might place a new waste-sorting plant near an existing landfill — Bullard worries that legacy will continue.

“At what point do you stop dumping on communities that have already got five landfills and five incinerators,” he asked, “and stop using the argument that they’re already dirty?”

Houston’s “One Bin for All” proposal, which would let residents throw their trash and recycling into a single bin instead of separating them first, has been debated for months. Supporters, including some national climate change organizations, believe the plan could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and costs. They say it would cut truck traffic, because there would be no need for two pickups, and argue that sorting trash from recyclables at a centralized facility is more effective than relying on residents to do it themselves. Today, Houston recycles only 6 percent of the waste it collects, compared with the national average of 34.5 percent.

But detractors like the Sierra Club and paper and steel industry groups say it cannot be done cost effectively and represents an outdated approach to waste management. They say the city should focus on expanding its recycling service and charging a garbage fee, which it has never done.

More recently, critics have seized on another aspect of the plan: where the new sorting facility would be located. While the bids from several companies vying are sealed, city officials say it makes sense to locate the facility near an existing landfill. Bullard and others fear that the McCarty landfill, which is operated by a company that also submitted a bid for the “One Bin” project, could be a prime target.

Laura Spanjian, Houston’s director of sustainability, said the proposed sorting center would be nothing like a landfill. It would be more like an advanced manufacturing facility, she said, and while it would receive a fair amount of truck traffic, it could actually improve the quality of life for neighborhoods near existing landfills by diverting waste away from them.

“The less waste we put into these landfills, the better this is going to be for the neighborhoods,” Ms. Spanjian said.

City officials are quick to note that it has been decades since a new major landfill was established in Houston.

But for Bullard, who is joined in his opposition by the Houston chapter of the NAACP, putting any waste-related facility in a predominantly minority neighborhood would feel like a slight. While community activists managed to get some landfills closed in those neighborhoods in the late 1960s and the 1970s, new facilities quickly popped up to replace them, Bullard said.

He recalls an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit he joined in the late 1970s, after the city and a waste management company had established a landfill in a suburban, middle-class, mostly African-American neighborhood. Just a few years earlier, when the neighborhood was still mostly white, local officials had put a stop to it.

“It was too early and too soon to challenge something like this in a Southern town,” Bullard said of the suit.

Supporters of the recycling plan say the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and truck traffic is an environmental justice issue, because climate change and air pollution can disproportionately affect poor and minority communities.

When there are separate collections for trash and recyclables, “we run two separate sets of trucks, two crews, two sets of canisters,” said Craig Benson, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who approves of the single-bin strategy. He added, “If we can reduce that to a single stream, that’s a real advantage.”

Disclosure: Texas Southern University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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