METRO | Melanie Scruggs : Houston’s regressive trash burning proposal

The global Zero Waste movement is actively opposing Houston’s proposed ‘One Bin for All.’

no dirty mrf

Rally to Recycle, Houston City Hall, February 25, 2014. Photo by Caitlin Murphy.

By Melanie Scruggs | The Rag Blog | May 14, 2014

HOUSTON — The environmental community in Texas has organically cultivated an unofficial division of labor that allows us to collaborate on issues while specializing in different areas of research and advocacy: some of us work on water conservation, others on renewable energy or food policy. Others focus on environmental justice and how pollution affects communities of color and concentrates health problems in high-risk areas.

I work in the movement called “Zero Waste,” devoted to reforming how we manage municipal solid waste, sustainable product and packaging design, and diverting waste from landfills and incinerators through waste reduction, recycling and compost programs. Anything trash-related is the focus of my organization’s full-time work and advocacy as we do our part to curb pollution and protect natural resources.

We gathered 70,000 petition signatures to help launch the first city-wide curbside recycling program in Dallas; it took 20,000 signatures to do the same in Arlington. We gathered 100,000 petition signatures in Houston to help convince the City to establish a Household Hazardous Waste program here in 1992 — the City of Houston actually gave us an award for that.

We have also organized grassroots support to oppose poorly run landfills and waste facilities that have caused pollution and nuisance problems for nearby communities in Central Texas, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, and the Rio Grande Valley. We have helped advocate for stronger environmental standards for all waste facilities, lobbying state lawmakers and the state environmental agency.

We were involved in the creation of the Austin Zero Waste Plan in 2011 and we are still involved in its implementation. We helped strengthen the Dallas Zero Waste Plan when it was adopted in 2013 and we are also involved in the initial steps in its implementation.

Here in Houston, we have been pressing city officials to expand recycling programs since we reopened our office here in 2008. We helped defeat a 2011 proposal to give a bad 20-year recycling contract to Waste Management without any competitive bidding; instead, we have asked Houston officials to create a long-term Zero Waste Plan as other cities have done.

The fact that we work primarily on waste and recycling issues is exactly the reason why the City of Houston has marginalized us in the decision-making process surrounding its current waste and recycling proposal, called “One Bin for All.”

Under the proposal, Houston residents will be instructed to throw all trash, recyclables, and food waste into one bin for curbside collection…

Under the proposal, Houston residents will be instructed to throw all trash, recyclables, and food waste into one bin for curbside collection, and then a new, centralized and privately funded facility will utilize a combination of new technologies and low-wage labor to sort through 2,000 tons of trash per day and use “partial combustion” to turn whatever cannot be recycled into syngas — which industry lobbyists call “clean” and “renewable” energy.

To be clear, all grassroots environmental organizations that work primarily on waste and recycling issues have always fought against proposals such as the one Houston has put forward. The city knew we would be against this plan from the very beginning and that we (and others such as the local Sierra Club chapter) would strenuously oppose it at every step of the way.

This was completely predictable because we are part of a global Zero Waste movement that has already taken a position against programs such as “One Bin for All.” Similar proposed facilities (called dirty MRFs, for “materials recovery facilities”) have already been abandoned in Dallas and Austin in the past five years.

smart enough to separate

Rally to Recycle, February 25, 2014, Houston City Hall. Photo by Daniel McCartt.

What the City of Houston is proposing strikes at the core of Zero Waste principles in every respect. It goes against everything that we work to accomplish every hour of every day. It is the antithesis of real progress on waste and recycling issues. It threatens to set a precedent that will lead to similar proposals all over the world, each of which will become a local battle for grassroots organizations to fight.

Many Zero Waste leaders, including Annie Leonard of Story of Stuff fame and Eric Lombardi of Eco-Cycle International in Boulder, Colorado, have specifically expressed opposition to “One Bin for All.” National environmental leaders such as Michael Brune and Bill McKibben have spoken out against it. See the full list of opponents here.

The goal of the Zero Waste movement is to divert over 90% of waste from landfills and incinerators…

The goal of the Zero Waste movement is to divert over 90% of waste from landfills and incinerators through waste reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, and product redesign. Obviously, mixing messy waste with recyclable material reduces that material’s value and eliminates potential resource recovery, driving more raw extraction of resources.

The City of Houston claims this will achieve a 75% recycling rate, but in reality there is no existing facility like the one they wish to build that has successfully separated more than 30% of the waste stream into organics and recycling. Mixed waste processing facilities, or dirty MRFs, should be a last resort to squeeze materials out of a waste stream after communities have optimized recycling and composting at home, work, and play. Using them with a “one bin” waste stream utterly wastes resources, jobs, and revenue.

Dirty MRF schemes also train people not to think about where waste comes from or where it goes — just toss it all into one bin and don’t give it a second thought. Environmental activist Annie Leonard, signed our open letter at the SXSW Eco conference last year and she added this statement:

I’ve been hearing about magic machines for separating trash and recycling for 20 years, and none of them have worked. Even if they were real, I’d still oppose these “One Bin” waste schemes because throwing everything in the same bin perpetuates our current mindless relationship with stuff. Houston and every other community needs to change the game and pursue a Zero Waste strategy which provides jobs, reduces pollution, and offers real solutions to the unsustainable culture of consumption and disposal which has failed us for so long.

But those problems pale in comparison to the elephant in the room: “Waste-to-energy.” Many forms of garbage burning have been touted all over the country and world as “innovative” and “state-of-the-art” technological solutions to our ever-present garbage problems. But everywhere they are built and operated they leave a legacy of toxic air pollution and hazardous solid waste, reduced recycling and resource recovery, and literally wasted energy.

Now that ‘incineration’ has become a dirty word, industry and City of Houston officials call this ‘gasification,’ ‘catalytic conversion,’ or ‘waste-to-biofuel’…

Now that “incineration” has become a dirty word, industry and City of Houston officials call this “gasification,” “catalytic conversion,” or “waste-to-biofuel” instead, claiming these are not incineration or combustion. Official U.S. EPA definitions and plain old common sense say they are, because each is a different version of the same thing: burning, cooking or melting trash to form gases, steam and toxic byproducts.


Gasification system.

Even green-washing industry reports label this technology “partial combustion.” Reading this anti-incineration advocate report makes it clear: this is not “renewable energy,” it is not “resource recovery,” it is not “pollution-free.” This is a fundamentally unsustainable, unacceptable way to deal with our limited resources on this planet.

Every environmental and environmental justice organization in the country that works primarily on waste and recycling issues stands in opposition to “waste-to-energy.” Don Pagel, a former City of Houston official overseeing the “One Bin for All” proposal, said this during a recent Super Neighborhood presentation before he left the City to work for the private sector: “If anyone can make waste-to-energy work, it’s Houston.”

This statement and the underlying goal it represents form the basis of the strong opposition Texas Campaign for the Environment, Sierra Club Houston Regional Group, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), San Jacinto River Coalition, the NAACP Houston Branch, Houston Peace and Justice Center, and others have expressed ever since the plan was announced.

The City of Houston operated eight garbage incinerators from the late 1920’s to the mid-1970’s. Six were in majority African-American communities and one was in a majority Hispanic community. All of them were eventually shut down due to pollution and financial problems, but the legacy of environmental injustice continues to this day: all of Houston’s landfills and waste facilities are still located in minority communities.

success rate crop

Demonstration during press conference at Houston City Hall, April 21, 2014. Photo by Daniel McCartt.

Now the city wants to build another waste facility and another version of an incinerator, and city documents show these would be located in one of the same communities of color where the existing waste facilities are. This isn’t “revolutionary,” it’s just more of the same. It mirrors the same environmental justice struggles that have emerged in other cities where phased incineration technologies such as gasification have been put forward: just as is consistently the case with other polluting industries, these facilities are always proposed in minority neighborhoods.

Zero Waste solutions to our waste problems are so much better, so much cheaper, so much more effective, so much better for the climate…

Zero Waste solutions to our waste problems are so much better, so much cheaper, so much more effective, so much better for the climate (see “Stop Trashing the Climate“), for jobs and for the environment (see “More Jobs, Less Pollution)”. Houston could eventually become a Zero Waste city; we could move as Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, now Fort Worth are moving to set a long-term Zero Waste goal.

We could be expanding real recycling to every household, to apartments and businesses, at public events and spaces. We could be starting up a curbside compost collection program as San Antonio and Austin have begun doing. Through tested and proven programs that are currently used by cities across the country and world, we could eventually reduce, recycle and compost 80-90% of our overall waste.

San Francisco for example collects recycling and organic waste separately; they have three bins, not one. They have recycling at apartments and offices. They have restaurants compost their food waste. They are phasing out disposable products such as single-use bags, Styrofoam, and water bottles. Houston could do all of these things if we wanted to. All environmental advocates should be saying “if anyone can move toward Zero Waste, Houston can.”

We believe all environmental groups should take a firm position against any “waste-to-energy” proposal that includes phased incineration. Furthermore, we believe community groups in Houston should join us in advocating for Zero Waste solutions that will do more to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases than “One Bin for All” will ever achieve.

Read this letter from the EPA to the City of Cleveland, which unsuccessfully tried to build a “gasification” plant to handle its waste, and then ask yourselves why any progressive or environmental organization would support a proposal to add so much pollution to our already dangerous, unhealthy air. We should be comparing the City of Houston’s plan to potential Zero Waste policies, not to the current state of affairs. City officials like to claim that “One Bin for All” would be at least better than what we have now, but that’s a false choice. We can, and must, do much better. To aim for Zero Waste is to set ourselves on the path toward sustainability.

[Melanie Scruggs is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) and organizer in the Zero Waste Houston Coalition. TCE is a grassroots advocacy organization focused on waste and recycling issues statewide. Melanie received Model Thesis recognition at the University of Texas at Austin for her 2012 Plan II thesis on Austin’s Uuderground press entitled “The Rise and Fall of The Rag.”]

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1 Response to METRO | Melanie Scruggs : Houston’s regressive trash burning proposal

  1. patsy gillham says:

    So well done Melanie!

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