Houston Chronicle Op-Ed
By Rosanne Barone
It’s unfortunate that the recent discussions in City Hall regarding Houston’s plan to sign a long-term recycling contract have been clouded by the ghost of One Bin for All.
That idea would have made Houstonians combine all their discards into one bin. It was adamantly rejected by the recycling industry, environmental justice advocates and many others.
The national Paper Recycling Coalition, Steel Recycling Institute, Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries and others knew that when used materials, food and pet waste are all combined together, it is also known as another name — “trash” — and so they wrote letters to then-Mayor Annise Parker advising her against this policy.
Thankfully, when Mayor Turner took office in 2016, he knew the best practice for Houston is to keep recyclable materials separate and clean so they can be sold to commodity markets and generate revenue for the City.
Turner himself reminded us at a press conference on June 28 that he has no interest in bringing back a proposal that would reverse Houston’s progress on sustainability, so let’s drop it.
Instead, let’s talk about the guaranteed economic opportunities and environmental protections that are now on the horizon as the city works to improve curbside recycling. According to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, when we include composters, hard-plastics reclaimers, electronics processors, construction- and demolition-debris recyclers and manufacturers of goods made from recycled items, we have 21,550 recycling jobs in our region and an industrial output of $4.5 billion per year.
Who knew recycling was so vital for Houston’s economy? Additionally, throwing all discards into landfills supports a disposable, wasteful culture while doing real damage to our environment. There are 56 leaking landfills in the state of Texas, four in Harris County and one in Fort Bend County. Landfills are also more often than not located in low-income neighborhoods, so trashing valuable materials also perpetuates environmental injustice.
Houston should instead follow other U.S. cities committed to sustainability by developing a zero-waste plan. Out of the nation’s 10 largest cities, Houston is the only one lacking a zero-waste plan, or at least a plan to get closer to it, like in San Antonio.
For many cities, zero waste means more than 90 percent of materials will be diverted from landfills through recycling, composting and reuse.
That sounds like a big goal, but it’s also a process that we can take time one step at a time. Like any plan for successful progress, there should be measurable benchmarks to help us get where we need to be.
For example, some cities focus on launching composting pilot programs within a few years, while others aim to offer recycling at all multifamily housing, including offering training to residents. Houston is unique, and we can create our own individualized plan.
My number one recommendation to start is to expand recycling to apartments. When I mentioned to City Council recently that 40 percent of Houston residents live in apartments and have no way to recycle other than collecting materials in their own personal bins and bringing them to a recycling facility themselves, some council members recognized this as an urgent problem.
Another immediate step would be to provide recycling to businesses and commercial industries in Houston, accounting for a huge amount of waste produced by people at work.
And a pilot program for curbside composting would be a huge way to reduce organic matter in landfills which contributes significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases.
The City must lead by example, and should start by offering recycling in all public buildings, outdoor recreation spaces and on public transportation. In many cities with a zero-waste goal, the city offers recycling training and education to residents. The more the public feels involved in the process, the more likely they are to participate.
An improved recycling system for Houston isn’t just about catching up to other cities or becoming a global leader. It’s about responsibly reusing our resources to create jobs and improve not just some communities, but to provide recycling for all.
Rosanne Barone is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment.
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