Recycling will stay – Zero Waste should be next

TCE Blog
By Melanie Scruggs, Houston Program Director

This month, thousands of Houston residents spoke out to save curbside recycling and to challenge the notion that tossing valuable resources into landfills is a viable option for the nation’s fourth largest city. Houstonians emailed Mayor Turner and City Council, signed multiple petitions, made phone calls, testified at City Hall and spread the word on social media.

The result: City Hall and their contractor responded to public outcry and made a temporary deal that will continue Houston’s curbside recycling with a short-term agreement. The two-year deal gives city officials the opportunity to explore other recycling contracts through competitive bidding and potentially bring more recyclers to Houston—which is exactly what we need to prevent one, huge company from having too much influence over a public service as important as curbside recycling.


It’s not all good news. In the short term, Houston’s curbside recycling will unfortunately not accept glass. Residents are encouraged to reduce and reuse glass containers, and deliver them to neighborhood depositories for recycling. According to the City of Houston eNewsletter, “Glass currently has no value on the commodities market, breaks down during collection and transportation and is unduly destructive to the processing equipment.”

Not recycling glass curbside is a big step backward, and neighborhood drop-offs are by no means a perfect substitute. Less recycled glass means less energy savings and climate benefits, more landfill tonnage, and fewer economic opportunities in the glass recycling industry. Just because commodity prices for glass are low right now should not mean more glass going into landfills.

This highlights one of the biggest problems we face in the waste and recycling conversation: the false economics and hidden costs that make recycling appear to be more expensive than landfills — in Texas, anyway. There are costs associated with trashing glass instead of recycling it—wasted natural resources, greenhouse gas emissions and long-term landfill pollution, to name a few—but since those don’t show up on Waste Management’s balance sheet, we get told that “glass has no value.” It’s a classic business externality.

Of course, we want glass recycling to return and we want more recyclers to build facilities in Houston. But how do we get there?

The solution is to start planning to divert more materials from landfills every year. The next step to take today is to set a long-term diversion goal, or “Zero Waste goal” for Houston. What that means is making a commitment that Houston will divert up to 90% of waste from landfills within the next few decades. In case that sounds like a pie-in-the-sky notion, you should know that Dallas, San Antonio and Austin are already on record with Zero Waste as their goal. San Francisco is already recovering over 75% of its waste. Los Angeles is over 75%. Seattle is at 56%.

And it’s not just cities. Walmart cited significant progress toward its Zero Waste goal as its top sustainability achievement last year. Toyota and Subaru are already both recovering over 90% of their waste. Xerox has a zero waste packaging and ink program. They’ve realized that it’s wildly unrealistic NOT to work toward Zero Waste—and we should too.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Transforming Waste Tool, a Zero Waste goal is the least difficult and first priority step that cities can take to transform a waste program that is dependent on landfills and incinerators into one where discards become resources for people to use through recycling, reusing, composting and new product designs.

Some local residents have responded with different solutions, however, that revolve more around paying for services than how we craft the policies themselves. Since the City budget is approaching a revenue and expense shortfall between $129 and $160 million, some Council members earlier in the month suggested abandoning recycling instead of paying up $1-2 million more per year (since the alternative of landfilling all discards would mean nearly $2 million more in landfill costs). In response, the Houston Chronicle and others have proposed a garbage fee.

It’s worth pointing out that a garbage fee could be used to incentivize recycling through a system known as Save Money and Reduce Trash (SMART) pricing or “Pay As You Throw,” which would allow people to pay less if they produce less trash. Texas cities like Austin and San Antonio do this by offering different sized containers. Having a dedicated source of funding for the Solid Waste Department would ensure its ability to plan for the future. A garbage fee is only useful, however, if its future is clear, transparent and if the public knows what the money will be spent on. It has to be part of a long-term solution, not just a momentary band-aid. Before we consider a garbage fee, in other words, we should adopt a Zero Waste goal and then see when and how the fee could be implemented under that plan.

Houston Chronicle: Council votes Wednesday on recycling contract that’s pricier than other Texas cities’
Houston Public Media: Houston Recycling Industry Concerned About Losing Curbside Glass Pickup
Houston Matters: Friday’s Show on Recycling
Resource Recycling: Advocates of glass recycling blast Houston contract

Our next step as an environmental organization is to launch an education program supported by a grant to TCE Fund from the Jacob & Terese Hershey Foundation. This will include an oral presentation that we can present to your neighborhood group, business or club. We will circulate new fliers through our door-to-door canvassing work with information on how to use the big, green bins properly (keep out the glass!) and why it is important for protecting our local ecosystems and environment.

We are strongly advocating that Mayor Turner and City Council pass a Zero Waste goal as soon as possible. As we’ve seen over the past month, when Houstonians make their voices heard, together we can get things done.

City strikes recycling deal that eliminates glass

Houston Chronicle
by Rebecca Elliot
Original article here

Glass no longer will be accepted in Houston’s curbside recycling program under a two-year
deal with Waste Management, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Friday.

The city’s curbside recycling program was in limbo after city officials and the Houston based
waste giant hit an impasse this week over contract negotiations, prompting concerns
about a potential lapse in service.

Collections will continue uninterrupted under the new agreement, but the 96-gallon green
bins will be limited to paper, cardboard, plastics and metal cans. Glass containers still can
be dropped off at the city’s neighborhood depositories but no longer will be allowed in the
curbside bins.

Eliminating glass will lower the processing costs for Waste Management.

“This agreement makes good economic sense for the city and for Waste Management. It
reaffirms our commitment to recycling. It doesn’t tie the city to a long-term contract,”
Turner said. “It allows Waste Management to avoid the employee layoffs that would have
likely resulted from cancellation of service in Houston and provides an opportunity for
potential competitors to enter the market.”

The city’s current contract with Waste Management has been extended from March 16
until March 23, when City Council next meets and can review the proposed agreement.

Don Smith, Waste Management’s area vice president, lauded the deal.

“We’re committed to ensuring that recycling is a long-term viable option for the city of
Houston,” Smith said, noting that glass not only is a negative-value commodity but also
contaminates fiber and plastic materials when it breaks.

“Removing glass from the recyclable stream was not an easy decision, and some would call
it a painful decision. But it was a necessary decision,” Smith said.

Under the new agreement, the city would pay Waste Management $90 per ton to process
and resell its recyclables, down from $95 under a four-year contract City Council rejected
on Wednesday. Turner had proposed paying $104 per ton in a one-year deal that Waste
Management turned down.

The firm currently charges a $65-per-ton processing fee, but with commodities prices
dropping below $50 a ton, it has renegotiated many of its municipal recycling contracts to
get more favorable terms.

Turner estimated the proposed contract would cost the city $2.7 million per year. It
requires at least 75 percent of the city’s recyclables to go to Waste Management facilities.

Confused residents?

Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes estimated that eliminating
glass would cut curbside recycling by about 1,000 tons a month. That would bring
Houston’s annual recycling tonnage to about 54,000, from 66,000.

If all of that glass were sent to a landfill, it would cost the city $27,000 per month more in
tipping fees, Hayes said.

Turner acknowledged that the new deal may leave residents confused about what
materials they can recycle curbside.

“I think both parties anticipate that glass may still be placed in the bins for a few months,
and we’re prepared to deal with that,” Turner said.

Councilman Dwight Boykins, for his part, said he planned to release a robocall to 13,000
voters in his district on Friday night, informing them of the new rule.

“I’m glad that the residents of District D will not lose the recycling program … and that the
mayor has not allowed Waste Management or any corporate industry in Houston to take
advantage of the city and its financially weak position,” Boykins said.

The city must close a budget gap of more than $126 million by July 1, an effort officials
have said is likely to result in layoffs.

“It’s a win-win,” Councilman Dave Martin said. “Our fiscal affairs are our doing, not their
doing. I’m just glad that they agreed to work with us on it.”

Still, some council members expressed reservations about the deal.

“It’s good, it’s better, but it’s not something I’m interested in doing at the moment,”
Councilman Mike Knox said, noting the increased processing fee. “I’m not for spending
any more money than we’ve already spent on it.”

Councilman Greg Travis said he still was bothered that the city has not gone through a
competitive bidding process for its recycling program.

“The mayor, he’s been put in a bind,” Travis said, adding, “Is this the best we can get? We
still don’t know that, because we haven’t done competitive bidding.”

Long-term plan eyed

Texas Campaign for the Environment’s Houston program director, Melanie Scruggs,
welcomed a short-term solution that allows recycling services to continue without
disruption but said eliminating glass is a step backward.

“Not being able to put our glass in the bin means that the majority of it will probably go to
a landfill since most people who use the curbside program are not likely to take it to a
dropoff,” Scruggs said. “We would like to see a long-term plan that will attract more
recyclers and get us moving toward zero waste.”

Meyerland-area resident Brian Block agreed that the new agreement is not ideal.

“It’s a little disappointing just because it will probably be less likely that glass will be part
of recycling, and we’ll see an increase in glass in our landfills, I would imagine,” Block said.
Heights resident Virgil Worthey was unperturbed by the change.

“I don’t drink, so I don’t use a lot of glass,” Worthey said. “Everything is in plastic already.”
Another resident, Dr. Billy Gill, praised the move, saying “I would rather deal with the
glass than do away with the entire program.”

He said he and his wife frequently shop online and depend on the city’s recycling program
to get rid of a regular stockpile of cardboard boxes. However, he said the family was too
busy to worry about glass containers.

“I’m just going to have to put glass in the garbage,” he said, “because I’m not driving to a
neighborhood dropoff.”

Trey Strange contributed to this report.

City considers nixing curbside recycling

Fox 26
by Scarlett Fakhar
Original story here

Fox26RecyclingHOUSTON (FOX 26) – Curbside recycling in Houston is in jeopardy. The city is drowning in debt and the cost of recycling isn’t helping.

The contract the city has with Waste Management of Texas ends this year and the city says they are doing everything they can to negotiate a better deal. A mayor spokesperson said they simply can’t afford to sign another long term agreement.

With the cost of oil low, the value of recyclable items is down too. Until prices improve the city said a short term contract with Waste Management of Texas is the only sensible option.

“The mayor has been looking at some other options,” said Janice Evans, a mayor spokesperson. “Maybe not having this new contract be for so long or maybe doing a shorter contract so that when the markets recover we can go back and take another look at it.”

Evans said the mayor is working directly with contractors to negotiate a better deal for a shorter period of time.

“Right now it really is a matter of the markets,” she said. “Everybody knows the oil industry is currently in a decline, there’s a pull effect, and the recycling market is also in decline.”

But, Evans added the city knows they will profit from the recycling program again sooner or later, and plan to move forward with curbside recycling one way or another.

Scruggs: Our environment pays if Houston doesn’t recycle

Houston Chronicle
Op-Ed by Melanie Scruggs, Houston Program Director
Original article here

Three-BinsDecades ago, when the Texas economy was not as diverse as it is now, the boom-and-bust cycle of oil production could wreak havoc on our lives in Houston. Even today, we feel the effects as energy companies cut back. Sure, cheap gas at the pump is nice to some, but we know it comes with many different kinds of costs.

Here’s another cost we now must consider: prices for recyclable materials have plummeted in part due to low oil prices and reduced demand. For now, tossing our trash into landfills appears cheaper than recycling. As a result, and spurred by the more immediate financial challenges at City Hall, several newly elected Houston Council members are arguing that we should “suspend” curbside recycling. Giving in to such a short-term, one-dimensional viewpoint would be the wrong thing to do as a leading city in the 21st century.

Back in 2008, the New York Times called out Houston for having one of the nation’s worst recycling rates – an abysmal 3 percent. City leaders ever since have responded by ramping up recycling. As of this past year, curbside recycling finally reached every single-family home served by the city, and our diversion rate has increased to around 20 percent. The current call to eliminate curbside recycling, however, confirms the need to commit to long-term recycling goals.

One challenge is that most Houstonians 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. Roughly 40 percent of Texas landfills that are required to monitor for groundwater pollution are leaking. Landfills often have long-term pollution and safety costs that are borne by we the taxpayers or property owners. Just ask the neighbors in Waller County, who have spent over $1.5 million fighting a proposed landfill from being built, or the city of Austin, which will pay more than $1 million per year for 30 years to care for a closed landfill. “Cheaper than recycling” is part of the landfill illusion.

Much of the invisible cost of wasting is also upstream. Mining for raw materials generates immense pollution, and the degradation to the air, land and water is often never repaired. Transporting, refining and manufacturing those raw materials into products consumes tremendous amounts of energy. Recycling can reduce these life-cycle costs dramatically. For example, it takes nine times more energy to make an aluminum can from raw materials than from recycled aluminum. City Council won’t see these pollution savings on a balance sheet when they vote on Wednesday, but if they stop curbside recycling in Houston, the environment will pay for it up and down the supply chain.

There are also social justice costs that we cannot ignore. Environmental burdens are borne disproportionally by the communities that live closest to landfills, as Council member Jerry Davis pointed out last Wednesday. Decades ago, Dr. Robert Bullard, Texas Southern University’s dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, developed the idea of environmental racism when he discovered that waste facilities, landfills and now-closed incinerators in the Houston area were disproportionately located in black and Latino neighborhoods. Race has been a bigger factor than class in determining where these facilities are sited.

Responsible recyclers and composters, on the other hand, stop landfills from growing and generate jobs for the working class. Sustainable industries that conserve the planet’s resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions are precisely the kind of economic development areas that we should be focusing on. According to a 2013 study by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the recycling, reuse and remanufacturing industries in the Greater Houston area contributed more than $4.2 billion in industrial output and more than 21,000 jobs. City Council can help build on that foundation by voting to continue curbside recycling, an issue that will be before council on Wednesday.

Certainly, recycling isn’t a silver bullet that will solve all of our waste problems, but landfilling is far worse. We need to prevent and reduce waste right from the start, reuse everything we can after that, and yes, recycle the rest. Council has an important decision Wednesday to either stick with our values or give up when times get tough. We are hopeful that with enough citizen input, they will keep us moving in the right direction.

Scruggs is Houston program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment.