- by Melanie Scruggs, Texas Campaign for the Environment

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"396","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"216","style":"width: 216px; height: 216px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"216"}}]]Right now, the City of Houston is expanding its two-bin or “single-stream” recycling program to finally cover all the nearly 350,000 homes that it services. As an avid zero waster, you may be thinking two things: 1. It is fantastic that Houstonians finally have access to a curbside recycling program; and 2. It’s quite embarrassing that the nation’s fourth largest city took so long to extend curbside recycling city-wide. Those two thoughts are both true, but unfortunately Houston is considering trashing the progress it has made by investing in a boondoggle project that would eliminate real recycling altogether.

The proposal known as “One Bin for All” is a misguided plan designed to eliminate curbside recycling and direct all residents to go back to putting both trash and recyclable materials in the same bin—hence the name—which would then be sent to a new waste facility known as a “dirty MRF”(Materials Recovery Facility) where the recyclable materials would supposedly be separated out after the fact. This plan has met stiff resistance locally and across the nation for the past two years, and rightfully so—it’s a terrible idea, and not a new one either. Dallas and Austin officials have considered this proposal and rejected it within the past three years.

In Houston, however, the technology has been hailed as the “next revolution of recycling.” Mixed signals are coming from officials in the Mayor’s Office about whether or not they actually plan to invest in the program, especially considering the recent and significant investment in source separated recycling. Still, the official plan under consideration is to give everyone in the city a curbside recycling bin, then take away their old garbage bins and tell residents to put all their trash and recyclable materials together in their nice, big, green recycling bin. Presto, now it’s all getting recycled thanks to the magic of “One Bin for All!” But not really—in the real world, similar programs have been shown to send most of the mixed-together materials straight to a landfill or incinerator.

Last year Houston issued a Request for Proposal and received five bids to build the new dirty MRF facility. City officials appointed an Advisory Committee to review the five proposals and recommend the best one. This recommendation, and then a decision by the City Council itself, was originally due to take place in December. Then, early 2015. Now city officials say the decision will be made by the end of the summer. The company pushing hardest for this proposal, Ecohub LLC a.k.a. Organic Energy Corporation, claims the decision has already been made—their lobbyist has said that city officials are currently drafting a contract to award them the bid and start construction on the dirty MRF. If this is true, which of the two bins do you think they will take away, as if it really mattered?

City officials are now saying the “waste to energy” (better known as trash incineration) component of this plan is not going to move forward for several more years, so we shouldn’t worry about the toxic air pollution that would create. It’s as if they think residents will somehow confuse the words “later” and “never.” Mayor Annise Parker and her administration have repeatedly admonished critics about this, claiming that trash-burning was never part of the plan at all. But the city’s official Request for Proposal documents clearly include “waste to fuel” or “gasification” technologies. In other words, incineration in disguise. Now that they can’t hide this anymore because it’s on paper for anyone to see, their new stance is, OK, it’s there, but we promise we won’t do it for a few more years. Honest. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Houston can do better. Cities in Texas, the U.S. and the world are moving toward comprehensive waste reduction, recycling, remanufacturing and composting programs to divert huge percentages of their discards from landfills. Other cities are reducing 40%, 60%, 80% or more of their waste, without tossing everything into one bin and without using dangerous and polluting incineration technologies. Houston can do that as well if we implement the policies and programs that have proven to work. We need a commitment from city officials that the progress we’re finally seeing now on curbside recycling won’t be used as a ploy for this bad proposal. We need true environmental stewardship and forward-thinking leadership to move even the biggest, most sprawling cities toward zero waste. It’s up to all Houston residents and urban leaders across the country to demand nothing less.