Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.
Houston has significantly improved its recycling rate by expanding single-stream recycling, or the “big, green bins.” While the smaller, 18-gallon green boxes only had a participation rate of 22%, the larger recycling bins are up to 62% recycling participation since the larger bins are a better, more convenient design and they accept more materials.
Following successful models of cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Toronto, Dallas and Austin, Houston can improve its recycling rate beyond our current 6% or next year’s expected 12% by implementing education programs and incentives.
It all starts with consistent programs and education
Incentives help to improve recycling rates
All waste services have a cost, but not all communities have waste fees or a designated monthly charge to fund trash, compost and recycling services. Some cities pay for waste disposal from general funds and are able to achieve high recycling rates through consistence services and promotion. Toronto, for example, has no waste fee and boasts 49% diversion from landfills—about 3 times that of Houston. Part of Toronto’s success is likely due to their curbside food waste collection and a commitment to strong education programs. Monthly charge-based incentives do create powerful economic incentives to increase recycling, however, and have proven successful in other cities.
In addition to recycling and compost, cities with a recycling culture are advocating for better product design. There is a nationally coordinated effort around container packaging, for instance, to eliminate non-recyclable packaging designs for certain products. Since our tax dollars pay for recycling and waste programs that dispose of millions of dollars’ worth of packaging every year, it makes sense that we should advocate for design that would lower the cost of recycling and disposal. This policy framework is called “extended producer responsibility” and aims to create economic incentives for producers to improve product design to achieve longer lifespans with greater durability and safety.
Long-term Zero Waste Goal
The big picture, long-term goal—90% diversion from landfills or higher—is often called Zero Waste. The Zero Waste International Alliance has developed the only peer-reviewed definition for the term:
Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.
Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.
Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.
Note that this definition specifically excludes phased incineration technologies such as gasification, which has been proposed for the City of Houston’s “One bin for All” proposal. In practice, local and commercial Zero Waste standards vary with 90% diversion or higher being a common goal. Both Dallas and Austin have Zero Waste goals, and San Antonio has a short-term goal to divert 60% of its waste by 2020.
Recycling, composting, and waste reduction are all higher and better uses for these materials than incineration according to the EPA. Unlike unproven technologies like gasification of solid waste, Zero Waste relies on proven technologies such as separate recycling and organics collection. We hope that as soon as the City abandons its inkling toward gasifying our trash, we will see real leadership in establishing education programs and incentives to increase participation in the “big, green bins” recycling program, which is already showing success and fostering a culture of responsibility, unlike “One bin for all,” which fosters a culture of waste. Houston’s low recycling rate is a sign of opportunities we have yet to explore and provide to all residents. We believe the right services and education programs will yield successful results just like they have in other Cities, and set a positive example for other communities to follow.
Melanie Scruggs is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, a statewide, grassroots advocacy organization for waste and recycling issues. Melanie graduated from the Plan II Honors program at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012.