Houston Sucked at Recycling, Got Better, and Now May Outright Ditch Recycling

Houston’s recycling program might be down in the dumps.

Since 2010, the city has contracted with Waste Management of Texas to pick up curbside recycling. But that contract just expired and Houston City Council is seriously considering suspending the ubiquitous green-bin-recycling program altogether – all for the sake of city jobs.

While various council members used eye-roll-deserving buzz terms like “keeping Houston green” and “we’re committed to recycling” during the February 23 City Council meeting, the obvious focus is on dealing with the budget deficit. According to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s comments during the meeting, the city is facing a shortfall of $800,000 for 2016 and $3 million in 2017 because of historically low prices on oil and gas commodities.

A renewed agreement with Waste Management would cost the city $18.3 million of general fund monies over the next four years with two optional one-year renewals. Turner said he had explored other options for recycling services, and concluded that a better deal isn’t out there.

A vote, which was supposed to take place last week, is scheduled for Wednesday.

“The $3 million a year expense is equivalent to the payroll and benefits of 45 city employees,” said Mike Knox, council member at-large, Position 1, during the February 23 meeting. (The Press wasn’t able to connect with Knox by phone last week.) “We’re going to have to determine from which department does the administration plan to lay off 45 employees this year and each subsequent year that this contract is enforced in order to support this contract.”

“It’s all about protecting the jobs and putting food on the table for the Houston employees’ families,” added District F Council Member Steve Le.

Melanie Scruggs, program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, says a major pratfall with Houston recycling is Waste Management’s monopoly over the city.

“Dallas owns its own landfill and they have a recycling facility at the landfill, so it’s a win-win for them,” says Scruggs. “Austin, in addition to a citywide recycling ordinance, has two different companies: one on the north side of [the Colorado River], and the other on the south side.”

“There’s not a competitive market for recycling in Houston. Waste Management is the only one in town and it puts the city in a difficult decision,” adds Scruggs. “The city of Houston is trying to put as much pressure on Waste Management for a shorter and cheaper contract because they want to save money.”

In 2008, The New York Times called Houston “the worst recycler among the United States’ 30 largest cities.” Shortly thereafter, in 2009, the city introduced a single-stream program, which allows residents to toss recyclable paper, corrugated cardboard, plastic, glass and aluminum cans into one bin. The program expanded in 2015 to include all homes within the city limits.

But now Houston city officials might do away with recycling. Meanwhile, the City of Sugar Land, which contracts with Republic Services, recently announced the expansion of its curbside recycling program to include textile and bulk cardboard.

Though it’s roughly half the financial cost to chuck recyclables into the landfill, Scruggs – who says that Houston is Texas’s only large city that doesn’t collect a garbage fee – believes there’s a long-term, invisible human cost, especially in Texas. A Texas Campaign for the Environment study shows that roughly 40 percent of the state’s landfills that are required to monitor for groundwater pollution are leaking.

Houston Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Jerry Davis seconded Scruggs’s concerns. During the February 23 council meeting, Davis went off about landfills and their potential for groundwater contamination and emitting gross, toxic air right into people's lungs. 

“So we can talk about saving jobs, they can have a job, but guess what? They’re going to die soon, so what’s the point of having the job?”
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen