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Are Recycling Bins Creating <i>More</i> Trash?

The cost of picking up people’s recycling bins is high, but the portion of people who actually recycle is low. That’s why Houston wants to get rid of recycling bins.

U.S. cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
U.S. cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
What if everything you put in a waste bin could be recycled? What if ‘trash’ became extinct? And what if you no longer had to sort your plastic cups from your glass jar from your banana peel?” Those were the questions posed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker earlier this year. Houston, which has a measly recycling rate of just 14 percent, was proposing to get rid of recycling bins altogether. By centrally processing and sorting waste, Parker suggested, the city could eventually divert up to 75 percent of all trash from landfills.

Americans have been recycling glass, cans, plastics, paper and cardboard for 40 years now. Yet recycling rates remain very low. U.S. cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So, Houston asks, why not “stop recycling”? Instead of multiple bins, multiple trucks and multiple routes, which in turn lead to increased operating costs and increased greenhouse gas emissions, Houston wants to cut all that and use one bin for recyclables and trash.

In March, Bloomberg Philanthropies gave Houston $1 million to begin work on a single-bin solution. The city got the ball rolling in June, issuing a request for qualifications. If all goes well, in two years the city hopes to have residents throwing trash and recyclables into one bin to be sorted at a new $100 million facility, which would be built and run by a private firm.

What’s not to love about an idea that increases a city’s recycling rate fivefold and simplifies the process for everyone? As it turns out, there’s a lot not to like about it, according to the Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE), a nonprofit advocacy group in the state. “The problem with this is obvious,” Andrew Dobbs, TCE’s program director, said in an October video explaining the group’s opposition to the project. “When you mix clean recyclables in with dirty trash, it comes out dirty. This contamination robs recyclables of value,” making them harder to sell.

In fact, China, the largest market for U.S. recyclables, has banned dirty “foreign rubbish.” The Christian Science Monitor reported in June that, as a result, “cities and towns across the U.S. and Europe are finding there is no longer a ready market in China for their poorly sorted and often impure bales of plastics, paper, and other waste.”

But even worse, Dobbs argues, is that Houston’s One Bin For All program, as it is called, discourages recycling. “When you tell people not to think about their discards,” he said, “you are sending them the wrong message. Reduction and reuse are the highest and best uses for every product.” To that end, Dobbs points to Austin, which passed a zero waste plan in 2011. Dallas has also passed one; San Antonio has passed a “pathways to zero waste” plan; and Fort Worth is considering one. And for those who argue that zero waste plans are more philosophical than practical, the TCE counters that curbside recycling is a better solution. San Francisco, for example, already has an incredibly successful curbside recycling program: They recycle 80 percent of their waste.

There are other options as well. Several cities are trying pay-as-you-throw programs, where residents use designated bags and are charged based on the amount of trash they throw away. WasteZero, a private company that specializes in these programs, says its cities have seen a 45 to 50 percent reduction in solid waste since implementing pay-as-you-throw, and a commensurate increase in recycling rates.

Some environmentalists support Houston’s One Bin plan. Elena Craft, a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Houston Chronicle that she thinks the idea “is an interesting and innovative approach to the issue. The City of Houston needed to take a proactive step to deal with its low recycling rate. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.”

But ultimately what Houston wants has never been done before. For that reason, Laura Spanjian, the city’s director of sustainability, is asking for patience, “Keep an open mind and support new ideas that are trying to do something better, if different.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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