Greater HoustonBig Green Bins and Justice for All
Today, more Americans recycle than vote. All of Texas' largest cities provide recycling to their City waste customers--except Houston, which offers recycling to only about half the residents served by the Solid Waste Management Department. Valuable recyclable commodities which could be collected and sold are instead being buried in ever-growing landfills, costing Houston jobs and wasting finite resources. This is unsustainable and short-sighted.
Will Houston Abandon Recycling?
Residents have urged the City for many years to extend real recycling to everyone in Houston, but the City has refused to invest the estimated $17 million this would cost. Thanks to public demand, the City has been expanding its recycling service since July 2013. At the same time, the City is planning to eliminate curbside recycling by 2015 and invest tax dollars in what is known as a dirty MRF (Materials Recovery Facility), a $100+ million facility to supposedly separate out recyclables from garbage. The City would tell residents to throw all their garbage and recycling into "One Bin for All." This is a huge step in the wrong direction.
What the City proposes is not "single-stream" recycling where residents can throw all of their glass, plastic, aluminum, paper, cardboard, etc. into the big, green bin while throwing their trash into the garbage bin. While single-stream is a proven and effective recycling technology, mixing garbage in with recyclables is simply a bad idea. Throwing food and other messy wastes on paper, cardboard and other recyclables makes those materials less valuable in the marketplace. Other cities have attempted to build facilities, or dirty MRFs, to let machines sort out the garbage, but all have had very low recycling rates and have relied on incineration as a means to divert trash from landfills.
Incineration and Injustice
City officials say that there will be no "combustion" associated with this facility, but the proposal calls for "gasification" and "catalytic conversion."  These technologies have been called "incinerators in disguise" by international waste reduction advocates, and are defined as incineration by the US EPA. They have been responsible for major pollution problems in communities that have tried them. The last thing Houston needs is to turn our trash into air pollution!
The real secret to dirty MRf facilities has been low wage labor. Workers with little to no job security have to pick through hazardous waste, are exposed to dangerous conditions, terrible smells and other harms. The City has also suggested that the facility be located at an existing waste disposal site, all of which are in predominantly working income communities of color. Concentrating all of the City's waste collection in one site poses significant local problems in terms of smell, noise, congestion, vehicle emissions and litter. The City's dirty MRF scheme will threaten the air, water, land, health and safety of Houston residents across the city.
Incineration is always the Wrong Choice
Incinerating waste, including gasification and catalytic conversion schemes, produces dioxins, furans and other Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which cause birth defects, hormonal disruptions and cancer. Incineration also competes with recycling for materials, which means we recycle less and extract more and more raw materials. Incineration eliminates incentives towards waste reduction and reuse, and is almost always much more expensive than reduction and recycling. Finally, recycling saves 3-5 times the energy that incineration produces. "One Bin for All" is a scheme to bring waste incineration to Houston. Take Action Now!
The Solution: Zero Waste
No single technology or facility can solve Houston's waste and recycling challenges. Communities and businesses around the world have adopted "Zero Waste" policies that combine waste reduction, product redesign, recycling, and composting to divert materials away from landfills, abolish trash incineration, create jobs and protect the environment. Our goal is to divert 90% of waste from landfills and incinerators. Several US cities have already reached 70% or 80%--so can Houston!
The first step is for the City of Houston to extend real curbside recycling to every home in the city. Houston's Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) currently provides big, green recycling bins that accept paper, plastics, aluminum and glass to more than 200,000 homes with over 100,000 still on the waiting list.
Other Texas cities with Zero Waste plans have passed Universal Recycling Ordinances that ensure recycling is available for apartment complexes, businesses and public spaces. Zero Waste means recycling will be easy at home, work and play.
Job Creation and Economic Development
Zero Waste isn't just good for the environment; it is powerful for the economy. Throwing away 10,000 tons of trash creates one job at a landfill, but would create 10 jobs in recycling and up to 296 jobs in material reuse!
Dallas and Austin have already passed Zero Waste plans, San Antonio has passed a "Pathway to Zero Waste" plan and Fort Worth is currently considering their own long-term plan to reduce waste. Now is time for Houston to move forward and develop a real strategy for conserving our resources.
If you don't have curbside recycling and are looking for a way to recycle at home, please see this list of recycling centers near you.
 See Houston Business Journal, "City of Houston seeking companies to work on One Bin for All project," June 2013.
 See Royal Society of Chemistry, Overview of Waste Management Options: Their Efficacy and Acceptability.
 See Capitol Public Finance Group, LLC, Lessons Learned Operating a Mixed Waste MRF in Placer County, California.
 See Pellow, David N., Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002. p.155.