Twisting Tale Toward a Zero Waste Houston

TCE Blog
By Rosanne Barone, Houston Program Director

Last week Houston City Council voted to hire a company that will help local officials create and adopt a long-range waste and recycling plan. This wasn’t all over the news, but it is indeed a big deal—and a significant victory for TCE that was years in the making. It could put Houston on a path to become the largest city in Texas working toward a Zero Waste future!

Let’s rewind seven years to 2011. Houston officials were considering a new 20-year recycling contract with Waste Management Inc. While City Council prepared to hold its vote, we joined forces with local union organizers to build public pressure against the contract for two reasons: City officials had not asked any other recycling companies for competitive bids, and they also did not have a long-range plan for waste and recycling in general. We advocated fiercely for an open bidding process so the city would get the best deal possible and for a long-term recycling plan that would set the standards for any future recycling proposals. We got the word out, pounded the pavement, and turned the up the heat on elected officials.

Together with our labor allies, we convinced City Council not to sign the 20-year, no-bid contract, which was certainly a victory. City officials punted on the controversy by signing a short-term recycling contract instead. We pointed out that two years earlier, Austin had adopted its own long-range plan to reduce waste by 90% by 2040—known as a Zero Waste Plan—and we argued that Houston should begin the process to accomplish the same thing. However, City officials responded by claiming that “Houston doesn’t do long-range planning.” We did our best to keep the pressure on because we knew that a Zero Waste Plan would be a huge win for residents and the environment.

What came next was a crazy curve-ball that bitterly divided the city and slowed our progress for the next five years: In 2012 Houston officials began considering a truly hair-brained scheme to eliminate curbside recycling and have residents toss all their waste and recycling into a single bin, which would be sorted out afterwards at a new $100 million “One Bin for All” facility. Some of the discards would end up being incinerated—adding to Houston’s infamous air pollution woes—and the new waste facility would be located in a low-income community of color. This was seriously bad news.

At first we hoped to convince city officials to quickly eliminate this proposal, given the overwhelming evidence that similar schemes had been tried and had utterly failed all over the world. We produced a detailed report laying out all the real-world examples and cautionary tales still in the making. Unfortunately, Mayor Annise Parker and her administration dug in and pushed as hard as they could to move this proposal forward. We pushed back with unrelenting grassroots pressure and assembled a diverse, powerful coalition that included the local NAACP chapter and Dr. Robert Bullard, known as “the father of environmental justice” for his work to shut down incinerators in Houston’s minority communities decades ago. We held demonstrations and rallies, packed City Council meetings, and generated tens of thousands of public comments against the plan. This pitched battle became national news and wound up in the New York Times.

Our pressure paid off by stalling the bad proposal long enough to run out the clock on Mayor Parker’s final term in office. We even made some progress in the meantime: Houston officials agreed to (finally!) provide curbside recycling for all single-family homes served by the city. And when Mayor Turner took office, he flatly rejected One Bin for All. Of course, we had been educating him on this topic for several years already by then!

With another giant victory under our belt, we again encouraged city officials to get the ball rolling on a long-term Zero Waste Plan. Dallas and San Antonio had each created long-range recycling plans by now, putting Houston behind the curve. Instead, in 2016 Houston officials actually considered abandoning curbside recycling in the name of budget cuts! We were thrust into another raging fight over the city’s proposed recycling contract, this time with the possibility that there wouldn’t even be one. Things got ugly between Waste Management and Mayor Turner, escalating the drama.

We were proud to help save curbside recycling when the City Council rejected the idea of eliminating it and instead voted for a short-term contract to keep things in place while a long-term solution could be identified. We did suffer a casualty, as glass was no longer accepted at the curb. But importantly, City officials finally recognized the need for a long-range waste and recycling plan. This laid the groundwork for last week’s victory as well.

The next thing Houston officials worked on was a new long-term recycling contract, and this time they opened the process for all interested companies to submit competitive bids. We asked City Council to make sure that the new contract would be able to meet Houston’s increasing recycling needs, resulting in a final deal that was $11 million less costly than originally proposed. At the start of 2018 City Council approved a 20-year contract with a firm that has many facilities overseas but is relatively new in the U.S.—they had won a long-term contract in Dallas as well. They are building a new recycling facility in Houston and glass will return to curbside recycling. This was yet another big win for recycling advocates!

Whew—we’ve finally caught back up to the present with last week’s vote for a long-range waste and recycling plan. We’ve been pushing for this since 2011, and the implications go way beyond curbside recycling. Other cities in Texas have adopted plans that include game-changers like recycling at all multi-family buildings and businesses, food waste recovery and curbside composting, and construction/demolition material recycling. We can and should take these strides forward in Houston as well.

Our task now is to ensure that the long-range plan will put our city on the path to Zero Waste. As this process unfolds over the next year, city officials will hold public meetings and accept feedback from residents. That means Houstonians will be able to help us tell elected officials to make this an aggressive Zero Waste Plan, not a weak, business-as-usual approach. Houston can join the ranks of Zero Waste cities across the country and world, but only if we make our voice heard now! Let’s gear up for another win for the environment and sustainability.

Rosanne Barone
Houston Program Director

Op-Ed: Why Texas should ban plastic bags

Houston Chronicle Op-Ed
By Rosanne Barone, Texas Campaign for the Environment

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, STF / Associated Press

There’s no question. Plastic pollution is a serious problem.

For decades, advocates have been alerting us to the floating gyres of trash out at sea and here on Galveston’s shores, where sea turtles ingest plastic bits and plastic bags clog their digestive tracts. These days you can’t go long without seeing the next viral photo of some horrifying intertwinement of animal and plastic debris posted alongside the countless solutions proposed to address the problem.

Consumers have long been encouraged to reduce, reuse and recycle their plastic. Recently, we’ve begun to hear about companies taking responsibility for the problem, too. Starbucks claims they will phase out plastic straws by 2020 and restaurants all over the world, including in Houston, are experimenting with alternatives to single-use plastics.

But when should government step in? And can government even do so in a state like Texas?

This question has come to a head in the last few weeks. A Texas Supreme Court decision found in late June that the City of Laredo’s ordinance to restrict plastic bags was invalid under Texas law, as are 10 similar ordinances in cities across Texas. Even so, Supreme Court Justices Eva Guzman and Debra Lehrmann in a concurring opinion emphasized that not just protectors of marine life, but business owners like fishermen, boaters, cattle ranchers and cotton ginners know that plastic bag pollution is a big enough problem for lawmakers to start taking seriously.

It’s easy to see how we got here. Chemists spent several decades at the beginning of the 20th century experimenting with the newly discovered polyethylene, a chemical component produced from natural gas and oil. In the 1950s, Swedish chemists discovered a stronger and more flexible plastic (HDPE) and patented the first manufactured thin-film plastic bag.

As soon as Mobil Chemical (now ExxonMobil) got wind of this invention, they obtained dozens of production patents, suppressing competition and producing their own bags by 1977. They quickly swept up the major grocery chains, and their customers, as lifelong partners.

But the proliferation of plastic bag use impacted a whole lot more than just the company’s bottom line. It changed our way of thinking to accept that using an item for a total of 12 minutes — the average time of a bag’s use — and then disposing of it is somehow OK.

This culture opened the floodgates for a whole lineage of single-use disposable plastics, and now it’s nearly impossible to avoid the plastic packaging that’s covering almost everything we want to buy.

Years later, the increasing production and disposal rates of plastic have created a pollution problem so deadly, it was even recently compared to smoking by Stylist magazine — harmful, addictive, and being sold to us by billion-dollar industries and advertisers.

International movements like Break Free From Plastic are connecting the dots along plastic’s supply chain and highlighting how plastic harms at every stage in the process. Plastic production pollutes the air we breathe, too, during refining processes where the chemical building blocks of plastic are made from fossil fuels. Families surrounded by the refineries in east Houston are far too familiar with this scenario, where they’re constantly exposed to toxic emissions and experience higher rates of cancer, reproductive problems, immune disorders and respiratory and skin infections.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast is set to lead the nation in petrochemical expansion in the next few years.

What we might not have realized before, but is so clear now, is that there is a limit to how much excessive, unnecessary production we can handle, and the Earth is telling us loudly that we’ve reached it.

And that brings us back to Laredo’s case at the Texas Supreme Court. Elimination of the source of the problem is the right move. That’s what these bans are all about. They work because they reduce use, and therefore waste and pollution, significantly and immediately.

Retailers, especially those headquartered here in Houston like Randall’s, can stop giving out plastic bags right now even without an ordinance in place. As our Supreme Court justices recommended, the Texas legislature should act now to allow local government to address causes of plastic bag pollution. A bill like House Bill 3482 from 2017’s legislative session would do just that, and while we’re gearing up for elections, we can tell candidates running to represent us in Austin that we want them to support legislation like it.

Let’s stop holding on so tightly to plastic bags. We’re better without them, and there’s no time like the present to act.

Rosanne Barone is the Houston Program Director at Texas Campaign for the Environment, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.

Starbucks is replacing plastic straws with ‘sippy cup’ lids

CBS Austin
by Bettie CrossMonday
Original article here

Watch the story here!

Starbucks announced on Monday it’s getting rid of its instantly recognizable green plastic straws. In their place will be lids that look like adult sippy cups. McDonald’s already announced a similar move and the city of Seattle has banned plastic straws and utensils.

Straws are becoming a target because they contribute to ocean pollution and can be dangerous to marine life. One viral video of an injured sea turtle is credited with waking up the world to the problem.

The video of a sea turtle having a straw removed from its nostril is likely to make you cringe, but the eight-minute video also went viral.

“So this is the reason why we don’t need plastic straws,” said Christine Figgener, a sea turtle expert at Texas A&M University who recorded the procedure.

More than 30 million people watched the video of the TAMU team working to remove the straw and help the sea turtle breathe easier. The turtle recovered, but seeing the video fueled outrage about all the single-use plastic trash that ends up in the world’s oceans.

“Soon there will be more bits of plastic in our oceans than fish,” said Robin Schneider, Executive Director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Schneider participated in a couple of Austin area demonstrations pressuring Starbucks to phase out plastic straws.

“Straws are one of the top ten items that are found in beach cleanups and often times you can tell it is Starbucks because of the green color,” said Schneider.

Starbucks announced on Monday it will phase out plastic straws by 2020. The change will eliminate the use of one billion straws a year. That not only reduces waste at landfills, it could also make recycling more efficient.

“They’re difficult to recycle in our local recycling stream. It is a small thin piece of plastic, it can fall through the machinery and get jammed, so it is a little bit of a problematic material to recycle,” said Gena McKinley with Austin Resource Recovery.

Environmentalists are applauding the Starbucks initiative, but they say the commitment to the environment needs to go beyond straws. They say plastic lids and cups and disposable utensils also need to be eliminated.

“Reusable is the best,” said Schneider. “These companies have hooked us on convenience and it is a big problem because we are creating so much trash that is totally unnecessary. It’s all this energy that gets put into all kind of things that we use once, for minutes, and then they’re thrown away. Well away, there is no really away, it’s one planet Earth.”

The new recyclable strawless lid will start showing up in Starbucks stores this fall. They will be completely phased in by 2020. Starbucks and McDonalds know some customers need or just prefer straws so they will be available for customers who ask, but they’ll be made of paper or compostable plastic.

Austin Says It Will No Longer Enforce Plastic Bag Ban, After Texas Supreme Court Ruling

KUT News Austin
By Matt Largey

The City of Austin says it will no longer enforce a ban on single-use plastic bags at most retail outlets, following a state Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down Laredo’s bag ban. The court ruled Laredo’s ban was at odds with state law, but urged the Legislature to pass more specific laws to allow similar bans in the future.

The Texas Health and Safety Code says that local governments in Texas may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Opponents of bag bans argued that language makes the bans illegal, and the court agreed, saying state lawmakers haven’t effectively defined how plastic bags fit into that regulatory framework.

On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent letters to 11 cities and towns in the state with bag bans, telling them their ordinances are “illegal” and “unenforceable”.

“Following the recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, the City will not enforce our current rules,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While it’s disappointing that the City is losing a tool to help protect the environment, we are also confident that the Austin community will continue to do their best to minimize plastic bag waste. Meanwhile, the City of Austin will continue to educate Austinites about the benefits of bringing reuseable bags with them every time they shop.”

Austin officials say prohibiting retailers from giving away disposable plastic bags helped reduce litter, save wildlife and stop bags from clogging up storm drains.

“The people of Austin have gotten used to this. Not a single job was lost. Not a single business was harmed,” said Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“We hope businesses and residents of this city will continue to do what works, regardless of what the Texas Supreme Court says.”

In a tweet Tuesday evening, the city’s largest grocery chain, San Antonio-based HEB, said it “will thoughtfully evaluate the issue to ensure we’re making the best decisions for our customers and the communities we serve.”