The city is forging ahead with an unprecedented single-bin combined waste collection and recycling plan. But it may want to reconsider ditching tried-and-true methods.
Back in March 2013, Houston won one of the inaugural Mayors Challenge prizes from Bloomberg Philanthropies for a dramatic proposal. The One Bin For All program offered a new solution for recycling, simplifying the two-bin answer to household waste settled on by most cities. In Houston, residents would put everything into one bin: sun-scorched grass clippings, empty Dr. Pepper cans, well-read copies of The Houston Chronicle, leftovers from Whataburger, the works. From there, a private firm would separate the good, the bad, and the recyclable at a new, to-be-constructed $100 million facility.
The public–private partnership to implement new technology is exactly the sort of outcome that the Mayors Challenge aims to inspire. Unfortunately, One Bin for All has yet to unite the city. The Texas Campaign for the Environment has emerged as a vocal critic of Houston's one-bin system since the city started moving forward with its plans. In the rush to find an innovative answer to a persistent problem the city faces, Houston may have turned its back on some reliable science.
Environmentalist critics and the city alike acknowledge that Houston has a trash problem. As the city itself readily admits, its recycling rate is dismal: Waste diversion is only 17 percent in Houston, with just 6 percent resulting from recycling, according to the city. One Bin for All aims to raise that level to 75 percent, making it competitive with some of the best recyclers in the nation. (San Francisco, for example, recycles 80 percent of its waste through its curbside recycling program.)
Why don't Houstonites recycle now? Many of them have never had the chance. Less than a third of Houston households have access to curbside recycling service. Last year, Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced an initiative to expand that figure from 28 percent to 55 percent of homes by doubling the number of green recycling bins across the city. At the same time that the city is working to add to the ranks of residents with access to single-stream recycling (that's a single bin for all commingled recyclables), Houston is looking to switch to One Bin for All by late 2015 or early 2016.
Those messages may seem mixed, but Houston may nevertheless be on the right track. By adopting better basic recycling practices seen in other Texas cities like Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio—the old-fashioned way, with a separate recycling bin—Houston could tackle recycling in an efficient way that produces jobs and results. At the same time, the city could continue to develop a one-bin processing system that worked within a broader context.
But there's a catch to thinking of one bin as a one-size-fits-all solution. Zero Waste Houston, a coalition of activist groups and nonprofits, alleges that one-bin recycling isn't recycling at all. Single-stream waste processing depends upon a facility called a dirty MRF (materials recovery facility or multi re-use facility). By a process called "gasification," paper and cardboard contaminated by food waste are processed at a dirty MRF and converted into fuel. Since the city can't sell dirty (that is, contaminated) recyclables to China or India, one-bin waste programs proffer an alternative to the often volatile recyclables market. Zero Waste Houston claims that gasification through garbage incineration produces additional pollution and that dirty MRFs aren't efficient recycling recovery centers.
Critics also argue that a one-bin program discourages the thinking that leads to recycling recovery. As research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business has shown, residents respond best to bad news when it comes to public appeals to get them to recycle. Loss-framed messages (about the bad things that happen when people don't recycle) tend to perform better than gain-framed messages (about the benefits if they do). When loss-framed messages are paired with instructions on how to clean materials for recycling, they get results.
Even if waste separation is useful for getting people to think about the waste they produce, it's not at present a perfect solution anywhere. Nationwide, U.S. cities recycle only about one-third of their waste, according to the EPA. So advances in dirty MRFs could make such a facility valuable, even in the context of a two-bin system. (First things first: Come up with a friendlier acronym than "dirty MRFs," which sounds like a NSFW subreddit.) Montgomery, Alabama, for example, claims to have achieved 60 percent diversion through its one-bin processing facility, which employs advanced sorting technology for recyclables and an anaerobic-digestion system for food waste.
Meanwhile, the city might want to consider something like a "pay-as-you-throw" program to price residents for the waste they produce. A plastic-bag tax or ban, approved in many Texas cities but not in Houston, could be a useful revenue stream in a city that doesn't collect a dedicated monthly garbage fee from homeowners.
Finally, Houston should only build a garbage processing plant if it can do it right. Residents in New Orleans opposed a similar garbage-processing facility, and the state of Maryland put a stop to construction of one in Baltimore for social, environmental, and economic reasons—all of which hover over Houston's to-be-determined plans. Zero Waste Houston argues that "the 'One Bin for All' project would continue the City of Houston's systemic legacy of environmental oppression of its minority residents by placing yet another polluting trash facility in a predominantly African American or Latino neighborhood."
There is one benefit that the city can only claim through the One Bin for All paradigm: Houston wouldn't need to send nearly as many trucks on routes to collect waste if those trucks were only grabbing one bin. The city estimates savings on the order of 5,000 fewer truck trips and 600,000 fewer vehicle miles per year. Still, there might be a way to balance savings on truck trips with savings through recycling. One environmental consultant suggests implementing the one-bin solution for office buildings—big waste producers that tend to produce paper waste, not the kind of wet waste that renders recyclables unfit for resale. Fewer truck trips to residences that result in more contaminated recyclables in landfills may very well not, on balance, solve the problem that One Bin for All means to solve.
While it might seem odd for Houston to expand its traditional recycling program even as it's planning on replacing it, this seems like a measured approach in context. Call it Two Bins, Two Ways: Ask Houstonites to recycle (and give them the means to do so). At the same time—just as it is doing now—the city needs to look carefully at a processing plant for the recyclables and food waste that residents will inevitably throw in the trash. After all, the city is working with something of a one-bin system already. Anything would be better. But Houston can and should aim even higher.