Waste Solution May Lean Again on a Low-Income Area

Texas Tribune Photo by Michael Stravato

Neena Satija
Texas Tribune | The New York Times
Original article here

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 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 mostly low-income, minority neighborhood that surrounds the landfill. (The university is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.)

Little has changed in the three decades since Dr. 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 plan for boosting its dismally low recycling rate, which might put a new waste-sorting plant near an existing landfill, Dr. 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like the Sierra Club and paper and steel industry groups say it cannot be done cost effectively and represents an outdated approach to waste management.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. Dr. 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 Dr. Bullard, who is joined in his opposition by the Houston chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., 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 popped up to replace them, Dr. 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,” Dr. 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.”

Assault on Batteries

battery wasteThe Cap Times Op-Ed
Douglas J. Buege
Original article here

When I was a kid, I had this cool robot that rolled around, flashed lights, and made weird sounds. It had a backpack that held two of those big AA batteries. I remember the last batteries — two Rayovacs that featured the cat jumping through the O — that corroded and destroyed the toy. What child would think that those little metal packages could pack such destruction?

Now, Rayovac’s drawing negative attention on a larger scale for being the one leading battery manufacturer of the Big Four to refuse to take back dead batteries. The Texas Campaign for the Environment has been dogging Spectrum Brands, Rayovac’s overseers, for refusing to take responsibility for their products. The Texans even shook up the recent Clean Lakes Festival in Madison with their theatrical protest.

Spectrum insists that used batteries belong in the landfill, even though Rayovac’s UK arm dispatched a press release calling for a take-back program to protect the environment.

There’s no doubt that batteries contain valuable materials that can be reclaimed. The common alkalines we use in smoke detectors and other devices contain steel as well as zinc and manganese compounds. Unfortunately, at current market prices, it costs more to extract these materials from batteries than to purchase new metals.

From Rayovac’s perspective, having to pay more to recycle batteries is negative, as it reduces their profits. But is their response — throwing the batteries away — a positive? Doing the right thing involves more than just avoiding negatives. Rayovac’s solution requires wasting resources, an obvious negative that they pass on to the rest of us. We should be able to find options that are basically good, positive choices. In the case of batteries, we can create a positive option that avoids waste while reclaiming all the components of batteries for future use.

Unfortunately, if Rayovac and other industry leaders agree to a battery take-back program, they will likely raise their prices. Then other companies will be able to sell batteries at lower prices, effectively punishing the leaders for doing the right thing.

Anyone seeking to force battery recycling can take at least two routes: harass the companies into doing the right thing or promote legislation that forces all companies to be responsible. The second approach creates a level playing field, requiring ALL battery producers and retailers to play by identical rules. Such policy would allow Rayovac to take back batteries with less financial risk.

Vermont’s legislature has already led the way in passing the nation’s first law requiring battery collection and recycling. Though the bill has several exemptions that will complicate efforts and will still allow some batteries into the landfill, the legislation may be just the first of many such efforts. Most battery manufacturers will develop the infrastructure for taking back their batteries. And, given their drive to earn money, they will find ways to profit as they meet new legal requirements. Batteries of the future will likely have much better designs allowing for recapture of their components.

Batteries are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to keeping useful materials out of our landfills. In Badgerland, we throw away an incredible amount of valuable goods because disposal proves cheaper than figuring out how to reclaim the materials. Viroquans don’t even recycle the glass bottles they collect in their recycling program because it’s too expensive to truck the glass to Minneapolis or Milwaukee.

Creative minds would find ways to recycle these goods. People seeking to keep Wisconsin clean and healthy for their grandkids would pressure producers to design products that are waste-free. Responsible citizens would demand recycling for all the recyclable materials we produce. Enterprising thinkers may find ways to profit from making use of materials slated for disposal.

Concerning batteries, it’s time to draft legislation like Vermont’s so that Wisconsinites can keep one valuable item out of our landfills. In the meantime, Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle, a company that recycled 12 million pounds of batteries in 2013, recommends looking at their website — call2recycle.org — to find out how businesses and organizations can mail in used batteries to be recycled free of charge.