Public Works: How Houston Is Putting All Its Waste in One Bin
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Public Works: How Houston Is Putting All Its Waste in One Bin

The city wants to make separating trash from recycling a thing of the past—but critics say the idea isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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

This summer, the city of Houston collaborated with a local arts organization to glam up municipal recycling trucks. Six vehicles were tricked out with designs by six local artists. There’s one truck wrapped in leaves and another wrapped in quilts; there are trucks depicting twisted steel beams, reused bottles, and post-apocalyptic recycling utopias—all roaming the streets on garbage day.

The trucks are certainly more attractive now, done up with designs meant to encourage recycling. But Houston is interested in getting residents to think about waste management in general, as the city looks to reinvent its entire waste collection model.

Currently Houston is rolling out a single-stream recycling program (the same kind of program we have in Toronto), in which everyone uses a single recycling bin for all recyclable materials instead of having to separate paper, plastics, and cans like a Neanderthal.

Even more ambitiously, Houston is pursuing “One Bin for All,” a waste collection model that would see all refuse—recycling, compost, and regular garbage—thrown into the same container. The mixed waste would then be collected and trucked off to a private facility where a waste management firm would separate the different kinds of waste and divert each one to its proper resting place.

According to the city’s vision, One Bin For All would reduce the amount of waste in landfills, presumably because it would be separated by professionals, not a man standing at the curb in his bathrobe at 6 a.m.

Currently, more than 80 per cent of Houston’s household waste ends up in landfills. With One Bin For All, the city says, that figure could drop to 25 per cent. And the new system would necessitate fewer waste-collection trips for garbage trucks (“600,000 fewer vehicle miles … every year,” according to the city), meaning reduced carbon emissions.

Now, if you think this all sounds a little too much like Homer Simpson’s “Can’t someone else do it?” waste-management model, you’re not the only one with doubts.

The One Bin For All plan includes gasification—that is, the process of converting certain types of waste into fuel. The Houston chapter of environmental group the Sierra Club says gasification and similar energy conversion models don’t produce as much energy as would be saved via traditional recycling, and that an effort to reduce waste overall would better serve the city. And non-profit Texas Campaign for the Environment contends keeping all but 25 per cent of waste out of landfills is an unrealistic goal, based on the performance of existing one-bin programs in other cities.

Both organizations joined a host of other environmental groups in writing an open letter to Houston’s mayor and city council opposing One Bin for All. But Houston is forging ahead, with the program expected to be up and running by 2015 or 2016.