August 7, 2014 -- Environmentalism these days often seems to put an ironic emphasis on conspicuous self-promotion: drive a Prius, buy organic food, fill the curb with recycling bins, etc. So when a city proposal takes aim at one of these tenets of a green lifestyle, a backlash is understandable. Details of the One Bin For All recycling proposal aren't even solid yet, but groups like the Sierra Club have already started to line up against it. This gut rejection seems misguided, but people should have a healthy skepticism of this relatively untested new plan.
The premise of One Bin is that, instead of people sorting recycling at home, recyclable material can be sorted out of garbage en masse at centralized locations through a mix of manpower and mechanized processes. It isn't as effective as sorting by hand, but it gets more recyclables in the end because it handles the entirety of the city's garbage rather than whatever people decide to sort at home.
The problem with this method, according to some environmentalist advocates, is that it removes the responsibility of recycling and cultivates a culture of waste. Out of sight, out of mind.
On the other hand, one could argue that integrating recycling as an inherent part of the waste management system is the ultimate victory. The recycling revolution has become the garbage establishment.
The bigger concern is whether One Bin will actually work. Houston's recycling rate is so low - about 14 percent in 2013 - that practically any movement will be an improvement. However, technological predecessors to the proposed One Bin plant, known as dirty material recovery facilities, have a track record of failure across the nation.
Chicago shuttered its own attempts at a material recovery system, which ended up recycling only about 10 percent of its waste into new products. This is far below City Hall's projection of diverting 55 percent of all garbage.
New technology gives reason to be optimistic. A San Jose, Calif., facility commissioned in 2008 has been reporting recycling recovery rates of 75 percent. A new plant in Montgomery, Ala., which just opened in April, reports a recycling diversion rate of 60 percent.
Those statistics are impressive, but the big numbers are reserved for One Bin's projected cost - $100 million.
In a meeting with the Chronicle Editorial Board, the city's Sustainability Director, Laura Spanjian, said the entire plan is supposed to be cost neutral, keeping the city's trash budget essentially the same. A private contractor will design, build and operate the One Bin plant, in exchange for a contract on the city's garbage. One man's trash is another's treasure, and Houston won't be stuck with the bill - unlike when a bond-funded trash incinerator project drove the city of Harrisburg, Pa., into bankruptcy.
Still, dumping garbage is cheap in Texas, and it seems inevitable that the price the city pays on each ton will increase, despite claims otherwise. The real cost offset comes from One Bin's one bin, meaning that the city only needs one truck instead of two for garbage and recycling. Slimming down unnecessary city operations is healthy for the long-term budget.
Conservative skepticism still leads to an arched eyebrow. Houston government shouldn't be the testing ground for new technology, and a few more years of experience in other cities could help refine the process. The Montgomery plant does not accept items such as kitty litter and dirty diapers, which are supposed to be tossed in a separate container. Their experience should lead Houstonians to worry whether we'll just end up with a One Bin for (Almost) All.
It still isn't clear exactly what Houston's plan will be. Several companies with different plans are bidding for a project that could be built at any of five different sites across Houston. But we do know that a recycling process once marred by a history of failure now has a few recent successes, and Mayor Annise Parker is trying to replicate that success in Houston.
- Go to Houston Chronicle Story. Link may expire over time.