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cityscape

Public Works: One Bin for All

Is Houston, Texas, the next frontier for recycling technology?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Houston, Texas, wants to make recycling easier, and they just won a million dollars to do it.

There was a time when no one recycled. Everything we were finished with—from rotting acid-drenched batteries to the marrow-sucked remnants of your KFC Tuesday shame-fest—went to the local dump to rest forever, or until unearthed by alien archaeologists digging through layers of fossilized Huggies to figure out what the hell happened to the species that created all this mess.

Now we know better, of course, and depending on where we live, we separate our tossables into different combinations of glass, plastic, organics, and so on, and then ship off some portion of them to be processed and reused.

But for all our good intentions, separation sloth and uncertainty about what goes where ensure that items that could be in the recycling stream wind up in landfills instead.

The reverse is also true. In Toronto, it’s estimated that around 20 per cent of what’s dropped in blue bins has to be rerouted to a dump. Materials in the wrong stream have to be removed and redirected at recycling facilities, which costs time and money.

Now, the city of Houston is preparing to use technology to address this flawed human link in the green-disposal chain. The idea is untested, but was judged viable enough to score a million-dollar prize in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, which asks cities across the United States to come up with “innovative ideas for solving major problems and improving quality of life.”

The Houston plan is to build a state-of-the-art recycling plant that will use technology from mining and other industries to free residents from confusing, onerous trash-sorting. Instead, machines will do it for them. The concept is being called “cost-neutral” (the City is looking for a public-private partnership to build the actual facility) and proponents hope it will raise the amount of trash diverted from landfills from the the city’s current 14 per cent to 75 per cent within a few years.

If things proceed as planned, in the future there won’t be a need for Houston to rely on the intentions or intelligence of human beings. Houstonians will be able to throw everything into one bin, and the magic garbage robots will take care of the rest. And the idea isn’t pie in the sky, according to Houston mayor Annise Parker’s press-release writers, who observe that the relevant scanning, sorting, and shredding technologies are all ready in use in the resource extraction industries. It’s just a matter of combining them in new ways, they say.

The program, with the egalitarian monicker “One Bin for All,” is essentially a more sophisticated take on what we have in Toronto, where residents are only asked to separate trash, recyclables, and organics (versus dividing into cardboard, plastic, glass, and other subcategories) and where we all ready divert almost half of our waste away from landfills. However, Toronto still requires about 50 workers to manually pick out contaminants from the recycling and direct them back into the crapstream.

Besides the obvious advantage of less garbage in the landfill, more efficient sorting would mean fewer garbage truck miles, resulting in a reduction in CO2 emissions equivalent to the output of about 5000 cars. It would also put more money into city coffers, because recycled material can be sold off.

Will it work? If it does, the largest city in America’s oil state may look greener than Toronto.

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