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Houston’s “One Bin for All” might not be all good

| March 31, 2014

Single-sort recycling is all the rage these days. Instead of requiring residents to split bottles and cans from paper and cardboard, many municipalities have moved to one large bin for all recyclables in an effort to remove barriers to recycling. The City of Houston is considering taking things a (giant) step further by allowing residents to combine all recyclables, all trash, and all compostables into one bin.

The only waste not welcome in this revolutionary proposal: electronic waste, “heavy trash,” and household hazardous waste.

one bin for all

Will the One Bin for All method leave trash bins looking like this? From Sergio Vassio Photography.

A recent New York Times article by Neena Satija explores the potential policy change, which has been dubbed the “One Bin for All” proposal.

Houston is an interesting choice for this progressive step. Residents of Houston currently recycle around 6 percent of their waste. That’s a paltry figure when compared to the average recycling rate for the country as a whole, which currently stands at 34.5 percent according to the EPA.

Proponents of the One Bin for All proposal envision that the change will “dramatically” increase recycling “using game changing technologies.” If their goals come to fruition, a “dramatic increase” is not an overstatement. Houston hopes that the change would “eventually divert three-quarters of its trash from landfills.”

The goals of the proposal

Here are a few more goals of the One Bin for All proposal, according to Houston’s official city website:

  • Protect air quality by reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by organic materials in landfills and reduce garbage and recycling truck trips
  • Convert non-recyclables into compost and/or energy
  • Reduce or neutralize City municipal solid waste costs through efficiencies and revenue sharing
  • Stimulate community interest in and responsibility for reducing, reusing, and recycling

The website also cites job creation as a goal, though they don’t precisely outline how streamlining city services will generate new jobs other than to say that they will be “high tech.”

Proponents also hope the initiative will “serve as a 21st-century model to communities around the world.” Of course, in order for that to happen, the proposal has to be approved — and not everyone is on board.

What One Bin for All’s critics have to say 

Even with increasing recycling rates as an overall goal, many environmentalists have balked at the proposed change. Satija’s report cites a number of concerns from critics of the policy, including the possibility that the new approach will “discourage residents from thinking about what — and how much — they throw away.” Others point out that combining trash and recycling could potentially contaminate recyclables, rendering them less valuable.

While Houston’s director of sustainability, Laura Spanjian, says that the goal is to keep the project cost-neutral, there are still concerns about costs associated with possible extensions of the proposed project. While the new change would theoretically pave the way for Houston to turn any nonrecyclable waste into gas that could be used for energy, that approach could cost more than four times as much per ton in comparison to the amount Houston currently spends per ton on landfill fees.

The One Bin for All proposal is “not a done deal,” even though it has already received a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Houston is exploring other options and is currently evaluating the results of a consulting study completed to evaluate the potential project.

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Category: Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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