Houston’s One-Bin Recycling Program: Path to Zero Waste or Environmental Racism?

HoustonWhen you think of zero waste, you might picture towering compost heaps or overflowing recycling carts – but what about one bin for all of your household waste, from carrot peels and chicken bones to junk mail and soda bottles? That’s the idea behind Houston’s “One Bin for All” program, which aims to boost the city’s dismal recycling rate of 19 percent, which falls 15 percent below the average national recycling figure.

Public officials predict the initiative will help the city keep 75 percent of its trash from the landfill, but critics of the program, ranging from the Texas Campaign for the Environment to the NAACP, contend that it will actually prevent the city from achieving zero waste and smacks of environmental racism.

Billed as the “next evolution of recycling,” Houston’s “One Bin for All” campaign is not to be confused with the single-stream recycling programs popular in many American cities. Single-stream recycling allows customers to place all of their recyclables in one cart and garbage in a second cart (there is sometimes a third cart for green waste). The one-bin program, on the other hand, is exactly as its name suggests: All of a household’s or business’ trash, recyclables and compostables are tossed into one bin, with no sorting required.

After collection, the waste will be hauled to a yet-to-be-constructed local materials recovery facility, specially designed to sort recyclable and compostable materials from garbage. Paper, plastics and other recyclables will be reprocessed; the facility will convert non-recyclables to either compost or energy, according to the city.

Of course, the main benefit of Houston’s proposal is customer convenience: It’s easy for residents and businesses to simply throw all of their waste into one bin, and the city won’t have to spend time and money educating customers to separate their waste streams correctly. Furthermore, “One Bin for All” will not only bump up the volume of recyclables and compostables collected, but it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions – due to fewer materials degrading in the landfill and emitting methane, and fewer garbage truck trips around the city to pick up fewer bins, the city says.

But not everyone is on board with Houston’s bright idea to reduce its waste. Environmental groups like the Texas Campaign for the Environment and Zero Waste Houston charge that mixing together trash, recyclables and compostables in one bin will result in contaminated recyclables, particularly paper and cardboard, that either can’t be marketed to recyclers or will fetch a much lower price in the marketplace. To be fair, however, this is the same criticism recyclers cast at single-stream recycling when it was first introduced, and recycling processors eventually adjusted to the dirtier, wetter paper and cardboard in the market.

The NAACP and Robert Bullard, founder of the environmental justice movement, are also criticizing the plan’s proposed materials recovery facility – likely to be sited in one of Houston’s African American or Latino neighborhoods – as an environmental justice issue. The facility will convert trash into energy – and not simply separate recyclables from garbage – so social justice advocates are concerned about the emissions generated during this process and how it will affect the community’s health.

With all this controversy surrounding “One Bin for All,” one question keeps coming up: Why didn’t Houston simply roll out a single-stream program citywide? Before 2013, less than half of the city’s households had recycling bins, according to Zero Waste Houston. The city intimates that single-stream recycling isn’t making enough of a dent in the waste stream in Houston or in cities across the nation, since America’s recycling rate has hovered around 30 percent for years.

It is encouraging to see a city try to take an innovative approach to a common environmental problem, but, based on the success – and laudable recycling rates – of cities like San Francisco and Austin, it seems like Houston may be trying to reinvent the wheel.

Image credit: Flickr/Horacio Maria

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru