They were halfway down the block when David Krohn's 1977 Jeep Wagoneer, full of makeshift recycling bins and a few stray glass bottles, blew a gasket.
“Did someone shoot at our wheels?” asked eight-year-old Tristan Berlanga, the younger brother of Krohn's girlfriend and the mastermind of this entrepreneurial endeavor.
Krohn drove the Jeep a little farther, slower, crossing his fingers that the gunshot noises coming from his exhaust would stop — because this was not the time for his car to crap out on him. He and Tristan had just set out to pick up glass from a half dozen Houston households and deliver those families their own glass-recycling bins, a trip that's part of their new initiative, Hauling Glass.
Since the city cut glass from its recycling repertoire last March, he and Tristan and a few of Krohn's buddies have been doing the city's job for it: going door to door to toss several pounds of beer bottles and Topo Chico bottles into the bed of trucks or Krohn's Jeep, then delivering all of it to a warehouse Tristan's dad owns, where they can store all the glass recyclables no longer allowed in your green Waste Management bins. They ultimately hand it over to Strategic Materials, the largest glass processor in North America, ironically headquartered in a city that no longer offers curbside glass recycling.
And it was all Tristan's idea, Krohn says.
“I didn't want people to go all the way to the [large Waste Management] recycling bins,” Tristan says, while Krohn checks out the engine. “So I thought I could just take it from them instead.” His favorite part of the job, he adds, is “making people happy.”
Yeah, that's right, leave it to an eight-year-old in the fourth-largest city in America to make collecting roughly one-fifth of the city's recycling tonnage his responsibility, as though 2016 Houston is the setting of a bleak Victorian-era Dickensian novel.
The city cut glass recycling from curbside pickup in March, saying the alternative was cutting recycling altogether. A contract with Waste Management was set to expire March 16, and because the city was (and is) in the middle of handling a budget crisis, Mayor Sylvester Turner rejected two contract renewal offers from Waste Management because he said they were too expensive. With the March 16 deadline approaching and no contract on the table, the possibility that recycling might evaporate completely became all too real.
At the last minute, though, Turner struck a deal with Waste Management that he called a “win-win” for them both: a two-year, $2.7 million-a-year contract, but one that excluded glass, the most expensive item for Waste Management to process. At a press conference, Waste Management TexOma Area Vice President Don Smith said much of the glass can break during collection, and can rip up WM's machinery. He said it had “negative value.”
Still, according to the city's solid waste department, the city recycles about 5,400 tons of material a month, roughly 18 percent of which used to be glass. That's 2 million pounds of glass per month that will now end up in a landfill, unless you haul it yourself to one of Waste Management's large bins or sign up and pay $10 a month for Hauling Glass's service.
Melanie Scruggs with Texas Campaign for the Environment said that, although it was good that the city was able to salvage most of its recycling program, the elimination of glass is “hugely disappointing” in a city as big as Houston. She said that, for some time, Houston has failed to develop a long-term recycling strategy, such as the “zero waste” initiative that Los Angeles and New York and Dallas have all successfully put in place, encouraging people to recycle 90 percent of their waste. Houston's failure to hop on board, Scruggs said, is mostly due to the fact that all through former mayor Annise Parker's tenure, the only recycling plan the administration focused on was the “one bin for all” proposal, which Scruggs called “unrealistic” and worse for recycling, since combining trash and recyclables into one container can often contaminate those recyclables and completely devalue them. Which brings us to eight-year-old Tristan and three twentysomethings picking up the city's glass.
“We've just not had the political will to move us in the right direction,” Scruggs said, adding, “We shouldn't have to rely on people with disposable income they're willing to spend on [Hauling Glass]. Recycling glass should be available to everyone.”
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In just a few short weeks, Hauling Glass has gained more than 200 customers spread across three ZIP codes, and Krohn says, “The name of the game was to just make it as easy of a transition as possible for people.” Even the week of Houston's apocalyptic flood, Hauling Glass was still up and running; it was the week of the company's first big pickup. Krohn or his friends will pick up glass from roughly 85 houses at a time.
After his girlfriend Googled possible problems with Krohn's Jeep, he got back in the car believing he'd successfully repaired the fuel filter. He took the car several more blocks and crossed Washington Street, on the way to his route — only for the Jeep to slow to a crawl.
“I think this is a good metaphor for how this glass recycling company has been running,” Krohn said. “Just kind of making it up as we go and figuring out how to get it done.”
He and Tristan crawled on back to Krohn's house and parked the Jeep in back. They clinked Topo Chicos and Krohn made some phone calls, looking for a way, and a truck, to finish the last six houses of the night.