Melanie Scruggs, Houston Program Director
Houston has Mayoral and City Council elections coming up this November, and so far, there are no environmental groups endorsing candidates or raising money for local races. Unsurprisingly, the environment and climate change have taken a back seat in the public discourse, and voters have had little opportunity to contrast candidates’ positions on important issues like recycling. With upcoming candidate forums scheduled to discuss environmental issues, however, that will soon change.
You are invited to hear for yourself
Thursday, September 3rd
Cherie Flores Pavilion in Hermann Park
Texas Campaign for the Environment does not endorse candidates and instead, we let our supporters know where to find information about who is running, what their public views on the environment are and general voting information. You can confirm that you are registered to vote (October 5th is the deadline to register for this upcoming election) here. Election Day is November 3rd.
We follow a local blog by Charles Kuffner, Off the Kuff, and his 2015 elections page. Kuffner has taken initiative to record interviews with candidates including a question about the “One Bin for All” boondoggle proposal. In case you missed it, in March of 2013, Mayor Parker announced she would spend a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to investigate the feasibility of abandoning our current two-bin recycling system (trash, recycling, plus a bag for yard waste) in order to experiment with a one-bin approach that is in the opposite direction recycling advocates like TCE, the National Recycling Coalition, environmentalists around the world and local environmental justice leaders agree major cities should be pursuing.
Despite the fact that in February of this year Houston finally completed the expansion of two-bin recycling to all neighborhoods, the debate of whether to eliminate it quietly continues, and the City of Houston is currently evaluating bids from at least one private company that wants a 20+ year contract to build a new facility called a dirty MRF (pronounced “murf”) where machines and people would sort through discards that we as citizens can and should recycle ourselves. Indications are that it is unlikely that such a contract will come up for a City Council vote, however, the proposal is still technically on the table.
So, candidates are faced with the question, do they support proven two and three-bin recycling in which major cities around the country, including Houston, are currently investing to maximize highest and best use of our discards on the path to zero waste? Or, is Houston willing to be an experiment for a company that claims to take individual responsibility out of the sustainability picture when it comes to recycling, and cannot point to a single facility anywhere that accomplishes their goal of 75%-95% recycling from a commingled trash stream?
Below are transcribed responses from Off the Kuff‘s interviews with candidates for two of the At-large City Council races. Houston has sixteen City Council members in total besides the Mayor, and five of them are elected city-wide. That means that in addition to voting for one council member that represents your district, numbered A-K, you get to vote for five council members “At-Large” to represent you and everyone in the city. The races for At-Large City Council positions #1 and #4 are two of the most contested races on the ballot since these are open seats, meaning the current council member is term limited and cannot seek re-election. Representing At-Large does not necessarily make these positions more important than district seats, but these officials do have a responsibility to represent everyone in the city, and they should certainly be strong proponents of policies that protect the environment. See what you think about their responses to Kuffner’s question, “Do you support ‘One Bin for All’ or should Houston continue what we are already doing?”
Chris Oliver, Candidate for City Council At-Large #1
“I like what we’re currently doing. I like putting out a green bin and a black bin. I think it’s a wonderful idea to do so. Now, this one bin for all concept, if it’s proven to be more efficient and more economically feasible I think we should take a look at that, but I currently like the way we’re doing it now. I think as a matter of convenience, it’s wonderful. I like the idea of my wife telling me, ‘don’t put your plastic water bottle in the trash, put it in the green bin.’ I like it. So I think it’s something we should hang on to personally.” Read full response
Jenifer Pool, Candidate for City Council At-Large #1
“I am a proponent of single-stream [one bin]. I’ve seen some of the proposals. I’m a bit reticent about some of it because we are part of the process where you’re learning to make mistakes and to make things better. I would not be in favor of putting a lot of money – I’m talking about $100’s of millions of dollars – to a system that isn’t quite proven yet. That we will be the test case.” Read full response
Matt Murphy, Candidate for City Council At-Large #4
“Well, you know, if I trusted the city government to live up to the promises that it has not lived up to in the past, then I would say that it would be a great idea. It’s something that we should investigate and see if it’s something that’s viable and that could work for our system. What I do trust is when I go out to my green bin and my black bin, that the green bin fills up so much faster than my black bin does, and I’m a citizen, and so in reality I trust the citizens to know what’s recyclable, what’s not and that’s being done.” Read full response
What candidates should be saying
One of the major problems with the Bloomberg proposal from the very beginning was that it locked the City into evaluating a pair of false alternatives while failing to consider the proven three-bin solution that most major cities in the U.S., including cities in Texas, are currently pursuing. In fact, the City of Houston has already been investing for years in a three-bin system by expanding separate recycling and yard waste collection. Now that more citizens have access to these curbside programs, we are well on our way to a Zero Waste solution similar to what San Antonio, Dallas and Austin are implementing now. By keeping discards separated, a three-bin solution ensures high quality materials can be recycled into the economy.
In a matter of months, the City of San Antonio is going to be completing its three-bin curbside program for 346,000 households that includes a trash bin in sizes small, medium or large, a large recycling bin and a large compost bin for food scraps and organic waste. San Antonio’s pay rate structure for this solid waste program incentivizes recycling and composting. Their three-bin approach is part of a pathway to zero waste plan passed in 2013 with the goal of diverting 60% diversion of waste from landfills by 2025.
Candidates for City Council should reject the notion that Houston has only two options: we can maintain the status quo or we can try this other ‘one-bin’ thing. This is a false choice. Instead, we need to be looking at technologies like three-bins that work and that have broad public support in the environmental and recycling community. We also need to look at the big picture, considering the waste problem and its solutions holistically, and not just in single-family homes, either.
Here are questions that candidates should be discussing:
- What would the benefits be, in terms of diverting waste from landfills, enhancing quality of life and creating jobs in sustainable industries, for a three-bin solid waste program that offers the recycling program we have now in addition to new food-waste collection services? What would that cost and how would we pay for it? If San Antonio can do it, so can Houston.
- How are we going to measure and improve recycling rates for the 40% of Houston residents who live in apartments and have private trash services, but rarely have convenient opportunities or incentives to recycle? Austin has passed a universal recycling ordinance to require recycling city-wide; meanwhile San Antonio has expanded its recycling services to cover multi-family. We could implement similar programs, including using existing tax incentives provided to apartment landowners to create recycling incentives as well.
- Other cities in Texas have passed long-term plans to reduce waste, to support state government policies aimed at waste reduction, and to grow local economies in reuse and re-manufacture, including composting. Now that Houston has a general plan that may one day include a sustainability plan, shouldn’t the city have a long-term solid waste or Zero Waste Plan, as other cities in Texas and around the world are implementing? A zero waste plan would set a goal of achieving 90% of waste diverted from landfills and incinerators in coming decades through recycling, composting, education, waste reduction efforts. It would establish a framework for working with the Texas legislature to promote recycling policies and tighter landfill rules so we can grow this important part of our green economy.
It would be more than a tragic mistake to abandon the progress that has been made in finally expanding curbside recycling to all neighborhoods only to waste tax dollars into a system that recycling advocates agree would fail to meet its expectations. Let’s thank Mayor Parker for expanding recycling during her term, and let’s press forward with responsible solutions to conserve resources and keep our city clean and healthy for all.
Lane Lewis, Candidate for City Council At-Large #1
“I recycle a lot. I fill it up every 2 weeks and roll it out to the street. My understanding is that Mayor Parker is very dedicated to this one bin, one stream and I can tell you that I personally find it much more convenient than to have to sift and sort the way we used to. So, if it works and if it’s financially feasible, I’m for it.”
Chris Oliver, Candidate for City Council At-Large #1
“I like what we’re currently doing. I like putting out a green bin and a black bin. I think it’s a wonderful idea to do so. Now, this one bin for all concept, if it’s proven to be more efficient and more economically feasible I think we should take a look at that, but I currently like the way we’re doing it now. I think as a matter of convenience, it’s wonderful. I like the idea of my wife telling me, ‘don’t put your plastic water bottle in the trash, put it in the green bin.’ I like it. So I think it’s something we should hang on to personally.”
Tom McCasland, Candidate for City Council At-Large #1
“I want to see our recycling rate go up. I think that’s something that everyone can agree on. I’ve talked with folks on both sides of this issue. It is not something that I feel like I have enough information on to say I am solidly for one side or the other. I’ll dig into the details. It needs to be economically feasible. We do need to worry about whether there’s a proven technology here especially when we’re spending taxpayer money. The one thing we can agree on is as a city, we need to be increasing our recycling rate. I’m glad for the significant steps forward this current administration has made on this. It’s worth asking the questions you’re asking. I’ll certainly be paying attention to the details there. I don’t know enough and have read in the paper but have yet to see enough information that would convince me that a single-stream [one bin] recycling plan is the right plan for the city.”
Jenifer Pool, Candidate for City Council At-Large #1
“I am a proponent of single-stream [one bin]. I’ve seen some of the proposals. I’m a bit reticent about some of it because we are part of the process where you’re learning to make mistakes and to make things better. I would not be in favor of putting a lot of money – I’m talking about $100’s of millions of dollars – to a system that isn’t quite proven yet. That we will be the test case. Now, Houston’s been the test case on a lot of stuff and we’ve proven our ability to be creative and make things work. That’s part of the beauty and power of our city. We make things happen. I think single-stream will work – we can’t keep filling in holes in the ground. We can’t keep building mountains of trash. Long-term it’s not sustainable. I could envision one day in the distant future people going back to our landfills and harvesting what was in there by mining it. We need to do that now. We need to be recycling as much as possible. But I’m a believer that people have the freedom of their own choice, and as we see not everyone is going to choose to recycle. Not everyone is going to take the time to sort out the different products in the current recycling system. That being the case we need to find a way of reclaiming what can be reclaimed from the recycling and from the single-stream [one-bin] and I think that’s the best way to go. I think we should take it a little slower. We’ve got proposals out there. As a city that’s got to be here for a while, we can take smaller steps, the idea that we go from what we’ve been doing to a single-stream recycling where everything goes in as recycle, I think we’re going to run the risk of having garbage on our streets because a plant broke down, or we’ve got mountains of trash waiting to be recycled at plants that aren’t operating. One of my clients is in that business. They’re expanding their location to do so. So I’ve been really close to the issue and I’m not talking about this in a void. It’s important to know from the standpoint of that person who’s going to do the recycling, the company that’s going to do it, what they deem is the reality. Everybody wants a contract everybody wants to make money from the government but I think we need to be real careful about how we move forward.”
Amanda Edwards, Candidate for City Council At-Large #4
“I think we need to be sure that we’re using a policy that’s the most effective in terms of accomplishing the goal of making sure people are recycling. I think we have to look at the number of people that would be recycling with the existing program versus if you have a one bin. If you have an increase in terms of people who are willing to recycle which is part of the objective, I think we need to look at that closely because again there are always detractors who prefer one method over another and certainly you have to weigh those. But ultimately the goal is what is most effective, in terms of getting people to actually participate in recycling. I think it’s important for us to respect our environment. It’s a critical need. But looking at whether that’s the most effective way of doing it is to me the primary determinant on whether or not we should alter our program or go with the existing program.”
Matt Murphy, Candidate for City Council At-Large #4
“Well, you know, if I trusted the city government to live up to the promises that it has not lived up to in the past, then I would say that it would be a great idea. It’s something that we should investigate and see if it’s something that’s viable and that could work for our system. What I do trust is when I go out to my green bin and my black bin, that the green bin fills up so much faster than my black bin does, and I’m a citizen, and so in reality I trust the citizens to know what’s recyclable, what’s not and that’s being done. That’s ultimately where I think the trust should lead. In that situation, that’s what I’m going to keep doing and so far that’s been very successful in the City of Houston. Now that’s fully implemented, and all of us have the bins, it took us several years even after it was installed to for us to get the bins. Now, like I said, my green bin fills up so much faster and I ultimately think when it comes down to it, we need to evaluate all the sources both publicly and privately. We could probably reduce our sanitation services just by looking at private issues, like Waste Management. I think Waste Management could probably do something cheaper than us if we give them the option to bid on it and figure out the situation and find those private ways to reduce our spending when it comes to waste management.”
Laurie Robinson, Candidate for City Council At-Large #4
“Considering I am a regulatory compliance person I like efficiencies and effectiveness. I think we need to understand the contract we get with the new supplier that’s providing this technology. We need to make sure it works. So I would like to see under the contract is a performance period to see if the technology actually really works and give the city the opportunity to get out of this technology if it doesn’t really work. Or give them time to fix the technology, that’s the first thing. I wouldn’t like to see a process that works right now, the two-bin solution, be stricken down and have a new technology that doesn’t work put in place and then nothing works. So I would like to have a pilot program or beta test to make sure that it actually works before we make the decision to switch over. But, I believe in recycling and I just had to put the garbage bin back into the garage and put the recycling bin back in the garage before I got here!”
Jonathan Hansen, Candidate for City Council At-Large #4
“I don’t have a very strong opinion on the issue. My betting principles would be what is the most sufficient? That’s really all I can say. What is the most efficient? What is the problem? What is the most efficient solution to this problem? That’s what we should pursue.”
Categories: News Clipping