As the nation’s fourth largest city, can Houston become a zero-waste city? Other Texas cities, like San Antonio, Austin and Dallas have long-term solid waste policies to try to reduce the trash going into landfills by as much as 90 percent.
Houston is certainly taking steps in the zero-waste direction. In January, the city approved a new contract with environmental services company Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas, Inc. (FCC) to build a zero-waste Multiple Recycling Facility similar to the one they did in Dallas. Dallas’ goal is to achieve increased waste diversion away from landfills over the next 20 years – 40 percent by 2020, 60 percent by 2030, and 80 percent zero waste by 2040. By comparison, the current national average for waste diversion is 34 percent. Houston’s facility will be larger, with a 35-ton-per-hour throughput.
Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas CEO Inigo Sanz said in a June 28 press conference, “We’re looking forward to building this magnificent facility for this city. It will be the flagship of our facilities.”
Houston’s new $20 million facility is designed to sort curbside single-stream residential recyclable material for the next 15 years. The contract will cost the city $57 million, and provides an option for a five-year extension. The facility is completely funded by FCC, with no cost to the city. In fact, the city does not own or operate any MRFs; they are all operated by companies contracted to the city. The brokerage of the waste products are left to FCC; the city does not get involved in selling the recycled waste. FCC will move its current U.S. headquarters from The Woodlands to the new facility.
While zero-waste advocate groups like Texas Campaign for the Environment say Houston is taking steps in the right direction, the city has a long, long way to go to achieve zero waste. Houston has a current diversion rate of approximately 20 percent, meaning 20 percent of trash items are repurposed for other uses. That means 80 percent of the city’s waste still ends up in the landfill. Of the 20 percent that never makes it to the landfill, 13 percent is from the city’s mandatory yard waste compost bags; these bags break down and the yard waste decomposes. The remaining 6 to 7 percent comes from recycling, and that could be a much greater amount given the size and population of the city.
In 2013, Houston expanded the budget to increase its single-stream traditional recycling program to expand curbside pickup across the city. The city says it is critical for all Houstonians to commit to minimizing waste, but that educating the public has been challenging due to resource limitations. As part of the new contract with the city, FCC has pledged to dedicate $1 million toward public education efforts. The city and FCC both will depend on local groups such as Keep Kingwood Green to help promote recycling in their specific areas.
Despite the 2013 curbside recycling expansion, three short years later, in 2016, several city council members wanted to suspend the recycling program due to a $150 million shortfall in the city budget. Advocate groups rallied Houstonians and thousands spoke out to save curbside recycling. The city kept the program by reaching a temporary two-year contract. The downside was that glass was eliminated from the recycling program. The contractor at the time, Waste Management, was netting about 1,000 tons a month of glass recycling, which they then provided to Strategic Materials, North America’s largest glass recycling company.
Once curbside glass was halted, Waste Management was only getting 10 to 20 percent of that. The rest ends up in landfills. When the new FCC center is completed in March 2019, glass curbside recycling will resume shortly thereafter, according to the city’s Solid Waste Department public information officer Irma Reyes. The Keep Kingwood Green group says that Kingwood residents fill two large bins with glass each weekend, but many opponents of the city’s decision to curb curbside glass say that the 10 centers are not conveniently located. Furthermore, Texas Campaign for the Environment says that the city’s numerous apartment complexes have no access to recycling of any kind. All of these factors combined mean that most of the city’s glass is still ending up in landfills.
Once the city adds glass back to the bin, that move will be another major step along the road to becoming a zero-waste city. But ultimately, how will the city accomplish this gargantuan task?
One of the main drivers to the zero-waste effort is cost. Waste Management’s two-year temporary contract with the city just ended, and they were charging the city approximately $92 per ton as the cost to recycle. Five companies submitted bids, but FCC’s bid was lower at about $87 per ton, and they ultimately won the 15-year contract. In selecting FCC, the city turned down a bid from Waste Management, North America’s largest hauler and multiple-recycling-facility operator. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that FCC offers 100 new jobs, state-of-the-art technology, and a cap of what the city will pay ($25 per ton) if the market were to turn down. FCC is even loaning the city $2.4 million to buy a new fleet of eight collection trucks; the city’s current aging fleet is eight years old on average. The new facility will even be able to process commercial material in the future.
“Quite frankly, it’s a very, very, very good deal,” Turner said. “We will never pay more for recycling than the current cost of landfilling trash in the Houston market,” Turner explained. The city budget is $2.9 million a year without glass, and FCC’s proposed cost is $1.6 million with glass, thus representing a significant cost savings for the city.
Part of Waste Management’s $92 per ton fee was obtaining compensation from the city for its contract prior to 2016, in which the company said it was losing money when commodity sales fell short of covering processing costs. Houston represents the eighth large U.S. city to award FCC a contract in the last two years. FCC already has a city contract to remove biosolids and sewage sludge.
Another driver is coverage. Reyes explained that the City of Houston collects only a portion of waste in the Houston area. For example, in Kingwood, the city collects 7,230 homes, according to Reyes. The rest are covered by private vendors selected by HOAs, and some neighborhoods in Houston don’t recycle at all. Houston-wide, the city provides curbside recycling to nearly 400,000 households.
Another driver is the ability to recycle special items, a program the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls “sustainable materials management,” in addition to the normal plastic and paper items. Keep Kingwood Green offers BOPA (batteries, oil, paint, antifreeze) and unused or expired prescription medication recycling twice per year, typically in April and November. The prescription medication recycling is particularly important because it keeps these substances away from children and pets, helps prevent drug abuse, and also helps prevent water pollution. More information can be found at http://keepkingwoodgreen.org/bopa-event/. The city partners with special recyclers who handle hazardous products and e-waste.
One of the largest problems that cities of all sizes have is the recycling of food and organic waste. Various experts estimated that about one-third of what ends up in landfills is this organic waste, which then becomes responsible for nearly 20 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Towns like Wake County in North Carolina have begun piloting composting projects, where residents can drop off organic waste like food scraps, cooked meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits, and paper items like plates, napkins, tea and coffee grounds, and pizza boxes. The biggest issue Wake County has is residents dropping off non-allowed items like raw meats and other recyclables.
Illegal dumping is a huge problem in a city of Houston’s magnitude. In 2016, the city launched a plan to catch the perpetrators. That program, which costs about $600,000 per year, has resulted in about 400 arrests so far, and the city recently added additional cameras and even drones to better keep up with violators. Many Houstonians assume that contractors are the biggest culprits, looking to circumvent fees to properly dispose of contractor waste, particularly with massive construction still going on one year after the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. However, contractors make up only 20 percent of the violations; the other 80 percent of violators are private citizens. Even with all the city’s efforts, they catch a minuscule amount of the illegal dumpers.
To truly have a successful zero-waste program, many cities which have already embarked on that path say that better packaging design is a must-have for the effort to be successful. Efforts like reducing the prevalence of single-use bags and degradable packages that break down are much needed across America.
Who is to blame for why Houston doesn’t recycle more? Some blame China, as explained in The Tribune’s first part of this two-part article (ourtribune.com/headlines/20754-a-rash-of-recycling.html). Some Houstonians blame the city, saying they’re not doing enough or diverting trash to landfills when residents think it is being recycled.
“We (the city) can guarantee that material collected by the city is handled properly as we promised the public it would be,” said Reyes.
While there was a brief, 2.5-month hiatus of recycling after Hurricane Harvey, the city resumed its normal operations in November 2017, according to Reyes. When it comes down to it, any city’s recycling effort largely depends on its citizens to do the right things.