Protesters Demand City Abandon ‘One Bin for All’ Recycling

Photo by Florian Martin, KUHFKUHF 88.7
Florian Martin
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Environmentalists rallied outside Houston City Hall to protest against the city’s planned one-bin recycling program. Some groups doubt the celebrated program will benefit the environment.

Chanting: “Bring the bins, no more waste! We’re smart enough to separate!”

About a year ago, the city of Houston won a one million dollar prize in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge for its recycling plan. The One Bin For All would enable Houstonians to throw all their trash into one bin, instead of putting recyclables in a separate bin. The different materials would then be separated by both machines and workers in a new waste management facility. The goal is to bump Houston’s recycling rate up to 75 percent of all trash, compared to 17 percent now.

That all sounds great, but the group Texas Campaign for the Environment says it’s a little different when you take a closer look.

Here’s the group’s Melanie Scruggs.

“The One Bin for All would contaminate a lot of recyclables. The proposal also calls for incineration technologies, like gasification and catalytic conversion.”

The group argues recyclables lose their value when they’re mixed in with regular, dirty trash. And they say the process that would be used to turn methane gas into energy will contribute to air pollution.

Don Pagel is the program manager for the city’s One Bin For All project. He acknowledges that there will be some contamination of recyclables.

“But if I increase the volume of potential recyclables by the pure tonnage, then I have still accomplished something better. Maybe ‘perfect’ is trying to outweigh the value of ‘better,’ and we have to take steps to get in the right direction.”

And Pagel says while gasification is on the table, that doesn’t mean the city will use that process. He says the overall goal of the program is to reduce not just waste but also greenhouse gas emissions.

Scruggs suspects the city will end up using gasification in order to reach its declared goal.

“This facility is called a ‘dirty MRF’ (materials recovery facility) and it’s not a new idea. There has been dirty MRF’s built in other parts of the city, and the recycling rates that they get are around 26 percent. So if that’s the goal that the city is going to reach, that’s not 75 percent, which is the goal of One Bin For All. The only way they’re going to reach 75 percent is through gasification or some other waste technology.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment and other advocacy groups call for an expansion of the city’s single-stream recycling program to all Houston households. The city meanwhile plans to expand the large green recycling carts to 70 percent of households by April.

But Pagel says even if all Houstonians have access to curbside recycling, the recycling rate will probably still not top the national average, which is around 30 percent.