These are responses recorded during interviews by Charles Kuffner, a local blogger for “Off the Kuff” and Chron.com. You can listen to the full interviews and check out Kuffner’s 2015 election page here.
Charles Kuffner: “One of the things Mayor Parker has done is to extend curbside recycling to all the neighborhoods and households that participate in the City of Houston’s Solid Waste program. There’s also been an exploration of a proposal called ‘One Bin For All,’ in which we throw everything in one bin, it would go to a plant for processing, the idea being to increase the amount of waste that is diverted away from landfills. It’s pioneer technology; it’s still kind of a work in progress. The City has a couple of bids for this under evaluation but it’s fairly clear that the next mayor is going to have to make the decision one way or the other on this. What’s your view of the ‘One Bin’ proposal?”
Adrian Garcia: “Well, I know that there’s a lot of concern as to whether or not this is going to be a viable option or not, so one, I look to study it and have people at the table to give me some perspective on it. But look, I was a big proponent for recycling. You’ve got to remember, in some of our early budget sessions at council I pointed to our trash cans around City Hall chambers, and I told the mayor, after a whole day of budgeting, look what’s in our trash bin. What was in there? Plastic bottles. Aluminum cans. I was pushing simply to have recycling receptacles in the City Hall chambers so we can demonstrate to our citizens the value and importance of recycling. I am a big advocate for not having to need future landfills, but I want to make sure that the approaches that we take are reasonable to ensure that we are accomplishing the ability to recycle and to prevent disproportionate growth in our landfill needs. I’m looking forward to sitting down with people. This is something I am actually very interested and passionate about, so I’ll take a look at it, and right now it looks like there is some concern about whether one bin approach is the right one.”
Bill King: “I really haven’t talked to anybody who thinks ‘One Bin for All’ will work. It’s sort of just one of those odd things where all the environmentalists are against it, the industry people are against it. I haven’t really found anybody that’s for it. And I also think that what may have made that work economically was if you had higher commodity prices, and we seem to be headed into some really low commodity prices. So, I frankly think it’s dead; I don’t think it’s going to be revived by anybody in the next administration… I think we need to encourage as much recycling as we can. It’s going to be a challenge if you’ve got low commodity prices. It’s just not nearly as economic if you don’t have that. And yet we’ve got land in every direction for hundreds of miles where you can carry this stuff off and dump it out there.”
Chris Bell: “I’d look at what we’ve learned and where it really stands. There’s a great deal of concern that the technology and the folks that are presently in the mix aren’t really in a position to accomplish what we want, and I think as mayor you have to go back and look and determine if we really are accomplishing what we set out to do, and if not, we probably have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how we can continue to move in that direction. I certainly thought it was a worthy goal, but we get letters here just about every day asking us to look at it very seriously because there’s a lot of folks who have looked at it very closely and just don’t believe the technology is really there to accomplish what we’re trying to do.”
Marty McVey: “Well, I’ve studied this issue and I think that it needs more study, quite frankly, because there is a contamination factor on the recycling. And if you have “One Bin for All” – I have not seen the solution to this that I’m satisfied with – if you’re putting all types of waste in one container then there is a contamination factor and I believe that is 20-30% waste factor in the recycling process, so if we have to clean it and we’ve got a waste factor that we can’t use, then I don’t know that’s it’s really a good thing. There’s not been enough studies on this issue. I think in the short term we need to separate and continue that process. I don’t want to get the city into a situation where we’re jumping to the thing that’s available to us. Quite frankly the proposal that I’ve seen from the City of Houston – at least one that was proposed to the city – it was pretty vague, it was pretty new. The company doesn’t have any real long term testing on this. I would be very hesitant to put the city in a situation where it’s not proven technology.”
Steve Costello: “So before I get to the ‘One Bin for All’ I just want to give you a personal experience. Ever since I’ve had the 96 gallon green can, the amount of trash that I actually put in my black can is a third of what it used to be. So, it’s good to see that we’re actually successfully recycling. And yet, most people don’t know that half of the population lives in apartments, and yet, we do not have a recycling program for apartment complexes. We don’t have a recycling program for commercial and light industrial facilities. I would like to see us pursue that first and to see how beneficial we could be in recycling. The issue of ‘One Bin for All,’ since I’m a an engineer I am extremely fascinated by the science. But most municipalities don’t want to be on the front side of a bell curve. They’d much rather be on the back side of the bell curve with proven technology. There a lot of recyclers that believe that ‘One Bin for All’ will diminish the value of the recycling product because it becomes a dirty product. You hear both sides of the story. I am also concerned about whether or not we have a viable business that can build the facility on behalf of the city. The plan is that they build the facility, they take care of all the recycling, and the city just guarantees the volume of recycling or volume of trash to it. So I’ll be interested to see how that goes, but again, the science to it is still kind of pioneering and I would be surprised if the city went and did something like that.”
Sylvester Turner: “Well, I certainly will take a look at it. There’s a lot a question as to whether the technology is available to do what has been represented. I think there’s a strong desire for more recycling, to expand it beyond where it is, to have more trash and recycling bins. I think we certainly need that. On the residential side, multifamily side, commercial side. I think there’s probably universal agreement for that. I think Austin’s got to step up on that end. So I certainly want to see that happen. Now whether or not the ‘One Bin’ proposal is something that we should do, the jury is still out on that end.”
An October 21, 2015 the University of Texas Energy Poll (link) found that strong majorities of Texans believe that climate change is occurring due to human behavior and that local governments should have the power to limit oil and gas operations in their city limits. These are two issues that Texas Campaign for the Environment and our allies have worked hard on here in Texas, facing down lots of politicians who represent the exact opposite viewpoint. This data now makes it clear: Texans are tired of these politics-as-usual games.
We can even predict the temperature of other planets and moons in our solar system by measuring the amount of greenhouse gases in their atmospheres through reflected light. When we send probes to those planets, our predictions have turned out to be correct. But some politicians and climate deniers seem to think that our smartest scientists know less about our own planet than we do about Mercury, Venus, or Mars. They think climate scientists know less basic chemistry and physics than talk show hosts and lobbyists.
We worked with many groups to fight hard against this law, generating thousands of letters, phone calls, and emails from Texans around the state, holding demonstrations and visiting with dozens of legislators. In the end, our elected officials did the bidding of the special interests anyway. But now we have the numbers to prove that Texas residents want no part of it.
Candidates for state office will be filing to run in the coming weeks, and the vote that really counts for 90% + of the seats in this state will happen on March 1—the party primaries. Whichever party dominates in your area, please be ready to show up to the polls and vote for candidates that promise to protect local control and address climate change. There may not be a lot of great candidates where you live, but showing up to public events and holding them accountable with tough questions can help change their minds over time. Remember: most Texans are on your side.
We have known for years that no matter what the stereotypes say, residents in every corner of our state believe in environmental protection. We know this because we go out into neighborhoods in all 181 state legislative districts and talk to them every day. Now is the time for us to organize this concern about climate change, this support for local control into a real force here in Texas. Texas Campaign for the Environment is uniquely situated to do just that—thanks for helping us get there!
Hundreds of gas plants across the country — and as many as 180 in Texas — soon will have to alert the federal government if they discharge, produce or handle certain toxic chemicals like benzene or hydrogen sulfide.
Responding to a petition and subsequent lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental and open government groups, including one from Texas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to add natural gas processing facilities to the list of entities that must report annually to the Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI. Congress created the program nearly 30 years ago as a way to provide citizens with information about the presence of toxic chemicals at facilities in their neighborhoods.
The EPA declined, however, to add the entire oil and gas sector to the list, as groups including the Texas Campaign for the Environment had demanded.
In a letter written late last week to the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained that the agency was partly granting the group’s petition — filed in 2012 in conjunction with 16 other organizations — and partly denying it.
“EPA agrees with petitioners that numerous processes within the oil and gas extraction sector are associated with significant quantities of TRI-listed chemicals,” she wrote.”However, several factors lead EPA to decline to add this sector, with the exception of natural gas processing plants, to the scope of TRI at this time.”
“EPA is currently engaging in a number of activities, including rule-making, research, guidance and other outreach, targeting the oil and gas extraction sector,” McCarthy continued.
She went on to note that the agency previously has argued that the inventory’s reporting requirements for facilities — including employing a minimum of 10 full-time equivalent employees and handling a minimum amount of chemicals — are not likely to be met at all individual well-drilling sites, so it doesn’t make sense to require the entire industry to report.
The EPA agreed to respond to the petition by Oct. 30 after the coalition sued in January, claiming an unreasonable delay in response.
The coalition groups heralded the EPA’s decision as a victory on Tuesday, but said they still believe the agency should require the entire oil and gas sector to report to the inventory, which Congress created in 1986 with the passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.
That law requires certain facilities to report to the inventory every year if they meet three criteria: They must employee 10 or more full-time equivalent employees; manufacture, process or use a certain amount of nearly 600 toxic chemicals on the program list; and be part of an inventory-covered industry like mining or manufacturing.
“Getting gas processing plants to report to the Toxic Release Inventory is an important first step, but we have not yet made any decisions about dropping the lawsuit,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “We are still evaluating some of the other emission sources in the oil and gas industry to determine if they are large enough to also be required to report their toxic pollution.”
Still, the addition of natural gas processing plants will help hold the oil and gas industry accountable, said Aaron Mintzes, policy advocate for Earthworks, one of the groups in the coalition.
“While we prefer [that] EPA require reporting industry-wide, this step will provide the public a better understanding of the toxic contaminates in their communities,” Mintzes said.
The EPA intends to implement the new regulation as quickly as possible, but can’t yet say when it might take effect, according to information emailed by a spokesman.
“EPA believes the addition of natural gas processing facilities to TRI would meaningfully increase the information available to the public and further the purposes of” the 1986 law, the email said.
“EPA estimates that natural gas processing facilities manufacture, process, or otherwise use more than 25 different TRI-listed chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. Additionally, EPA estimates that approximately 42 million people, 48 percent of whom are minorities and 14 percent of whom live below the poverty line, reside within 49 kilometers (approximately 30 miles) of at least one natural gas processing plant.”
The agency estimates that more than half of the 500-plus natural gas processing plants in the U.S. will be required to report. In Texas, there are 180 plants total, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. How many of them meet the reporting criteria remains unclear.
The Toxic Release Inventory differs from other programs like the National Emissions Inventory in that it requires the annual disclosure of discharges to land and water, in addition to air, along with “waste management and pollution prevention information.” (The National Emissions Inventory requires reporting every three years.) The Toxic Release Inventory database also is designed to be easily accessed by the public.
Nearly every natural gas plant in Texas — 175 of them — already are required to report air emissions each year to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and must obtain state permits that cap emissions “at levels protective of human health and the environment,” the state agency said in a statement.
“Emissions event reporting is required by all facilities that emit a reportable quantity of a pollutant,” the statement said. “These reporting requirements are applicable regardless [of] if the site in question is required to report to the EPA [Toxic Release Inventory.]”
EPA Proposes Federal Plan to Reduce Carbon Emissions, Publishes Clean Power Plan Texas groups disappointed in lack of state leadership to protect the climate
AUSTIN, Tex. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today published the Clean Power Plan and proposed a federal plan in the Federal Register, which marks the beginning of the implementation of President Obama’s historic policy to curb carbon pollution from power plants and ushers in an opportunity to act to create and implement plans to achieve the plan’s goals.
In response, the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, Clean Water Action, Texas Campaign for the Environment and Environment Texas released the following joint statement:
With the Clean Power Plan formally published, instead of denying the catastrophic effects of climate disruption like the record heat, floods and wildfires we experience here in Texas, it’s time to put aside partisan politics. We should get to work to protect our health, economy and communities by creating a strong state plan to reduce carbon emissions. Texas has many tools and opportunities to move forward with clean energy and become a national leader in the fight against climate change, but we’re disappointed to see that the only actions from our state leadership deny the very real problem of climate disruption and block common sense and achievable clean air protections.
We need to act now to protect the health of Texas’s citizens — like the thousands of children who already suffer from asthma exacerbated by bad air quality — and create clean energy jobs that can help employ our veterans returning from war. Wind, solar and energy efficiency are now so affordable we can lower consumer bills as well as helping achieve cleaner air and a livable climate. State leaders have demonstrated a complete lack of willingness to do what’s right for Texas and appear to be content to deny the reality of climate change and file needless lawsuits.
We’re encouraged that the EPA has a federal solution if the state continues to refuse to act. We will work diligently with the federal government to ensure a federal plan to clean up the air protects communities already affected by high levels of pollution are not exposed to more, safeguards low income consumers from the unfair burden of high energy bills, and enables stakeholders to come together to plan for just transition from coal to high tech renewable energy. If political leadership ever allows state agencies to construct a real state-based plan for Texas, we welcome the opportunity to work with them.
Melanie Scruggs, Houston Program Director
The Texas legislative session was held earlier this year, and it was rough for the environment and local communities around the state who are struggling to ward off polluters. Legislators passed laws which stripped Texas cities of their power to protect residents, and citizens lost important opportunities to speak out against polluting facilities. One the regions most directly affected by these bad laws – and plagued with a score of bad votes from state elected officials – is the Rio Grande Valley.
HB 40 stripped local governments of their ability to limit things like drilling, noise, truck traffic and other oil and gas activities near neighborhoods, hospitals and schools within city limits. Local laws in South Texas cities like Edinburg, Brownsville and McAllen regarding well density, freshwater protection, pipeline construction, and even drilling near schools, could be wiped from the books if a company sues these cities.
SB 709 gutted the process for evidence-based hearings when the state is considering permits for polluting facilities. It will now be much harder to keep dangerous plants and hazardous dumps out of communities in the Rio Grande Valley.
Other laws limited the damages counties could recover from polluters even when those polluters cost residents millions of dollars, and reduced buffer zones around medical waste facilities.
Texas Campaign for the Environment traveled to the Rio Grande Valley for a week-long canvassing trip to hold statewide elected officials accountable for their votes on these bad laws, and to build relationships with some outstanding, local activists who are organizing there on these and other issues. More than 130 Valley residents in McAllen, Edinburg, Brownsville, Port Isabel and South Padre Island made contributions to TCE, including 85 members. Our supporters wrote more than 180 letters (in both English and Spanish) to these lawmakers:
State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who voted for HB 40 and SB 709
State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., who co-authored the Senate version of HB 40 and voted for SB 709
State Representative Eddie Lucio III, who voted for HB 40 but against SB 709
State Representative Rene Oliveira, who co-authored HB 40 and voted for both HB 40 and SB 709
State Representative Terry Canales, who was one of the few House members to vote against HB 40 – and he voted absent on SB 709. His constituents mostly sent him thank-you letters.
While local organizers in Edinburg and McAllen have been fighting to keep drilling away from neighborhoods, schools and hospitals, these same organizers are working double-duty to stop out-of-town companies that want to build five liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals in the Port of Brownsville. The five LNG terminals could become the biggest polluters in Cameron County.
The proposed LNG sites would be built on precious coastal prairie and wetlands, endangering native wildlife and spewing toxic air pollution. Less than two miles from Port Isabel, the site would bring an unsightly industrial facility, flares and smokestacks to the Bahia Grande area that depends on tourism.
We met up with the local organizers with “Save RGV from LNG” and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club to hold three workshops during the week on canvassing door-to-door, working with the media and planning an upcoming Climate March in McAllen. Quite frankly, we learned just as much from them as they did from us!
Despite having received almost zero statewide or national media attention, Save RGV from LNG and the local Sierra Club chapter have been able to generate a great deal of pressure for their campaign against LNG in the Port of Brownsville and the drilling issues in the McAllen area. Some recent victories on their campaign include getting local officials including the Point Isabel Independent School District to reject tax breaks for one of the LNG companies and convincing Port Isabel City Commission to vote in August to oppose the terminals. The City of Edinburg also recently rejected a permit for a company to drill on city-owned land, and the list of victories continues to grow.
Their passion and commitment to overcoming the tough challenges ahead made a deep impression on all of us. Another thing that struck us was the natural beauty of the Rio Grande Valley (especially if you, like our canvassers, enjoy braving the mosquitoes to camp in state parks) which is home to incredible bird and other wildlife diversity. There are over 500 species of birds in Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park alone. How would bringing more polluting industries to the Valley affect these crucial migration zones and the tourism that goes along with them?
We have seen over and over again, throughout our organizing, that these ordeals bring communities together and foster new relationships. In the Rio Grande Valley, residents certainly have a great deal worth protecting. We look forward to supporting organizers in the Valley as they empower themselves and their neighbors to fight pollution. It’s part of being a better connected movement for people and the environment in Texas, so that when next state legislative session rolls around, we’ll be ready.
If you read the New York Times, you may have seen an Op-Ed by John Tierney last week trying to persuade you that recycling is actually a bad thing. He’s been railing against recycling since the mid-90’s, and now he’s been published again, coming to a predictable conclusion:
“Cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash.”
Don’t buy it. Recycling certainly isn’t a perfect silver bullet that will solve all of our waste problems, but burning or burying our trash is far worse for the environment and the economy. We need to prevent and reduce waste right from the start, reuse everything we can after that, and yes, recycle the rest.
If you get that, no need to keep reading—but if this bad Op-Ed has you wondering, allow us to dismantle it. Let’s get started.
It’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.
Here’s the first major misleading claim, one that’s at the center of our current waste system and is often used in similar arguments elsewhere: It’s cheaper not to protect the environment.
What’s really going on here, of course, is that it only appears cheaper—we aren’t even seeing, let alone paying, the true costs of landfills. In the business world, this is called an externality because it means externalizing what should be an internal cost. And polluting industries are really, really good at doing just that. The company gets the profit, the public gets the cost. (“Cheap” fossil fuels are another perfect example of this.) Landfills often have long-term costs that are borne by we the taxpayers.
Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas.
Indeed, prices for commodities go up and down over time like the stock market. Every time those prices go down, you can count on someone to claim that recycling is not viable as a result. Yet somehow, prices go back up again when manufacturers realize they can save money using recycled materials.
While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years…. [it] has been stuck around 34 percent.
This is a real problem. But it’s because manufacturers keep making products and packaging that can’t be easily recycled—disposable Styrofoam food and drink containers are nearly impossible to recover and recycle, for example, yet they are everywhere—and because of the false economics that keep landfill costs artificially low. Some producers, such as the inventor of Keurig and its infinite, unrecyclable K-Cups, actually live to regret it.
Yes, it’s popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx and Houston don’t have the same fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time.
Here we come to our first outright lie. Americans of all stripes want to recycle. We know it works. Despite the lack of effort by state officials to promote or support it, recycling has spread from El Paso to Texarkana and many cities in between just since the last time the author wrote a hate-piece against it. In fact, more people say they recycle regularly than vote!
“If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”
Another major, unmissable clue: Waste Management is one of the largest landfill companies in the world. Yes, they recycle materials as well, but they make far more money by continuing to build trash mountains, AKA landfills. We do need to ask ourselves what the goal is—to make landfill companies more profitable?
But how much difference does it make? Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles.
The author is comparing one of the worst materials to recycle—single-use plastic bottles, which arguably should not even be made or used in the first place—to one of the most carbon-intensive things you can do. Disposable plastic drink containers will lose every argument they’re in, because they’re an unsustainable product in general. But that doesn’t mean we should just burn or bury them instead of recycling!
One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills.
Actually, we now have the opposite problem: Texas has more than enough landfill capacity. Too much landfill space can lead to hyper-competitive markets pressuring landfill companies to cut corners to keep their rates low. That helps keep the “landfills are cheap” myth going.
Landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland… The United States Open tennis tournament is played on the site of an old landfill — and one that never had the linings and other environmental safeguards required today.
This one’s a doozy. In older times, our trash was organic in nature—there were no plastics or synthetic materials—so old landfills have indeed been reclaimed. But garbage today is full of synthetics, toxic chemicals and heavy metals, which is why new safeguards are now required. That also means modern landfills are essentially hazardous waste sites. No, our kids aren’t playing there.
Though most cities shun landfills, they have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits (and have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from the sights and smells).
Here’s another blatant lie. Landfills are increasingly foisted on rural areas because there are far fewer people around to object. Landfill companies reap the economic benefits, while surrounding communities loses money due to declining property values. That’s because most big waste companies are terrible neighbors. Some prove to be exceptions, but they are just that—exceptions.
For example, the Hempstead community (near Houston) is close to defeating a proposed landfill that threatened their water supply. The fight unified the community as they raised $1.7 million to defeat it, sued their former County officials for cutting secret deals with the landfill company and defeated elected officials at the ballot box who refused to protect their health from the proposed dump.
A modern well-lined landfill in a rural area can have relatively little environmental impact. Decomposing garbage releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but landfill operators have started capturing it and using it to generate electricity. Modern incinerators, while politically unpopular in the United States, release so few pollutants that they’ve been widely accepted in the eco-conscious countries of Northern Europe and Japan for generating clean energy.
This is like some kind of competition to see how many falsehoods can fit into one paragraph. All landfills have big environmental impacts—the EPA says that eventually, they all leak toxic wastewater (called “leachate”) into the ground, which means possibly into groundwater. According to the state environmental agency, 36 of 100 Texas landfills with groundwater monitoring wells were leaking in 2013.
Even landfills that attempt to capture methane still release far too much of it—for instance, the McCommas Bluff landfill is the 6th largest stationary source of hazardous air pollution in Dallas, even though it has a gas capture system in place. Living near a landfill is like living near any other polluting, industrial facility: It makes people sick.
Then there’s the worst lie so far: Incinerators are fine and dandy. We could spend the entire article debunking that. Burning trash is absolutely terrible for the environment, the economy, and the climate. Just because other countries do it doesn’t means it’s a good idea. For much more about this absurd, destructive practice, read on here.
Composting facilities around the country have inspired complaints about nauseating odors, swarming rats and defecating sea gulls….the unhappy neighbors of the composting plant successfully campaigned to shut it down last year.
Yes, if run badly, composting facilities can be bad neighbors too. Even bad-apple recycling facilities can do great harm. There was a lead-acid battery recycling plant in Frisco, TX that dumped so much lead into the air and water that it turned the town into a national “toxic hotspot.” We helped local residents win their fight to shut it down. Does that mean we shouldn’t recycle car batteries? Of course not—it means we should do it correctly.
The environmental benefits of recycling come chiefly from reducing the need to manufacture new products — less mining, drilling and logging. But that’s not so appealing to the workers in those industries and to the communities that have accepted the environmental trade-offs that come with those jobs.
Unreal. The author glibly glosses over a massive, global problem as if it’s a minor annoyance. Have you seen where most of our raw materials actually come from? It’s a catastrophe, a true environmental disaster, that’s often kept hidden from view. Trade-offs? Jobs? Sometimes it’s more like war prisoners and child labor in the developing world.
Recycling one ton of plastic saves only slightly more than one ton of carbon dioxide. A ton of food saves a little less than a ton. For glass, you have to recycle three tons in order to get about one ton of greenhouse benefits. Worst of all is yard waste: it takes 20 tons of it to save a single ton of carbon dioxide.
As opposed to burying or burning the material instead, which brings zero climate benefits and actually produces even more greenhouse gas emissions! Worst of all is the author’s dismissal of yard waste composting: Keeping organic material out of landfills prevents methane pollution, which is 20 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is.
Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.
Meanwhile, back in reality: EPA estimates show that taken as a whole, the provision, transportation and disposal of products, food and packaging accounts for 42% of our overall climate footprint. Recycling is one key part of reducing that impact.
For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That’s why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could.
The author either doesn’t understand this or doesn’t want you to. We’re simply not paying the real cost of labor or raw materials right now. Using child labor in a war-torn region of Africa to get materials that are then sent to be manufactured in glorified sweatshops in Asia that need suicide nets to keep people from jumping off the roof who make smartphones by the billions that are then shipped all over the world using heavily subsidized fossil fuels—our current take it, make it, waste it system is built on a giant compilation of externalized costs and privatized profits. Understanding where most of our stuff really comes from makes the entire article read like something out of The Onion.
Social good would be optimized by subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and by imposing a $15 tax on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill…. The result, Dr. Kinnaman predicts, would be a lot less recycling than there is today.
Here’s the first and only good idea in the article. However, a measly $15/ton is far too low. If the true costs of extraction, manufacturing, transportation and waste were really reflected in such a garbage tax, we would have much MORE recycling because that would obviously be far cheaper. Many countries, and even many U.S. states, have laws in place that make manufacturers responsible for the costs associated with recovering the waste they create, such as Texas’ computer and TV recycling laws. By all means, let’s expand and improve that system to hold even more companies accountable. But pretending those costs are miniscule will only incentivize even more waste, landfills and incinerators.
[Recycling] is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.
Interesting word choice—today’s raw materials extraction, sweatshop manufacturing centers, landfills, and incinerators are indeed sins against nature and humanity. Recycling isn’t asking for forgiveness, it’s working to prevent future harm.
They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly…It would take legions of garbage police to enforce a zero-waste society, but true believers insist that’s the future.
Yes, when you do something that harms society as a whole, society may eventually penalize you for doing it. Hardly a new concept. But no, “garbage police” aren’t the only way to Zero Waste. Education, well-designed programs, and economic incentives will all play a role. For an excellent “road map” to Zero Waste, read here.
Cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash.
And we’re finally back where we started. We should just keep burying our trash forever, ignoring the global, interconnected consequences, because it’s “easy and cheap.” We haven’t learned anything new about how to function as a species since pre-history. What a compelling argument…
When it comes to waste and recycling, remember that there are many systemic, unsustainable problems involved. Unfortunately, misinformation is everywhere—even in the New York Times.
Corey Troiani DFW Program Coordinator, Texas Campaign for the Environment
Sometimes, campaign victories look just like they do in the movies – a crowd assembles, people speak eloquently as a community to reject (or support) something, and you can almost hear the heroic soundtrack swelling.
Other times, it’s not like that at all. A bad idea comes up, first privately, then publicly, and it starts getting some traction among elected officials. But then skilled community organizers move to generate letters, phone calls and emails against it, stopping the proposal from ever coming up for a public vote. It dies a quiet, meek death.
That’s how it was with the bad idea to derail Austin’s comprehensive Zero Waste Plan. We won this campaign quickly and quietly, so if you didn’t hear about it – well, that’s what this blog post is for.
Let’s start with the background. At the end of 2012, the City of Austin began its pilot program for expanding its yard waste curbside pick-up to include food waste and food-soiled paper such as pizza boxes. More households were added in 2014 to bring it up to a total of 14,000 homes.
In this year’s city budget process, the Austin Resource Recovery Department (the new name for the Solid Waste Department) proposed a $1.70 monthly rate increase to cover a wide variety of services including street sweeping, dead animal pick-up and many others. Four cents of the fee was to fund trucks for expanding the curbside organics collection.
Some members of Austin City Council floated the idea that the curbside composting program should not be universal for all residents, but should instead be a subscription-only service. Only some residents would be able to pay for this, leaving many Austinites without access. This bad idea was gaining momentum as more City Council members seemed to gravitate toward it.
We knew it would be impossible to reach our long-term Zero Waste goal – to divert 90% of our discards from the landfill by 2040 – without curbside composting for all residents. And we knew it would be unfair to treat this as a “luxury” service only for certain residents. In addition, because organics in landfills generate methane, a flammable and powerful climate change gas, organics diversion is a high priority for our climate protection goals as well.
So Texas Campaign for the Environment and our allies swung into action and found widespread support for universal curbside organics collection. In a matter of just a few days, hundreds of constituents wrote letters, emailed, called and met with their Council members. Environmental leaders signed onto a joint letter calling for environmental leadership. In the end, there was not enough support on City Council for the idea to even come up for a vote. VICTORY! (But no swelling soundtrack.)
A few weeks later, Austin Mayor Steve Adler addressed the crowd at our 5th Annual Trash Makeover Challenge. The Mayor made note of expanded parks funding in the newly adopted budget, and then he summed up our victory this way:
“We didn’t see a debate and public vote on whether to move forward with our resource recovery and conservation goals in Austin. It just went through. And that’s because of the people in this room.”
By the way, our event showcased amazing designs made out of at least 90% recycled materials and you can see lots of great pictures here.
The development and implementation of Austin’s curbside composting program is still in the works. It’s not a sure thing – future City Council budget sessions will need to continue its funding. However, we will be at the table and we will be mobilizing Austinites to support this crucial piece of our Zero Waste plan. Other Texas cities such as San Antonio are already rolling out these services. Austin needs to stay on the leading edge for a more sustainable future.