The Long Rise and Fast Fall of the Ambitious One-Bin Recycling Program

It’s hard to tell whether George Gitschel, CEO of EcoHub Houston, loves or hates garbage. He’s spent 25 years trying to find a way to get rid of it. But he also talks about trash the way a rosy-eyed antique collector or junkyard operator talks about the value he or she finds in old things nobody wants: To Gitschel, throwing away tons of garbage in landfills every day is a total waste of good resources.

So Gitschel started looking for ways to reuse trash, to recycle about 95 percent of what we throw away. “I started focusing my energy on how I might be able to end garbage on planet Earth,” he said, hardly exaggerating.

The result was EcoHub, an invention for which Gitschel has secured 21 patents in six countries, complete with a 58-step solid-waste recycling system that would separate our trash into all the many types of recycling streams, from standard recyclables such as plastic and paper to the rotting food we toss in the garbage, and turn it into new products like fuel and even shoes. You wouldn’t even need to separate your recycling and trash anymore — the physics and technology at the plant would handle that for you — and collection costs for the city would be significantly reduced.

For the past several years, Houston was poised to become the guinea pig for Gitschel’s invention — soon known as the “One Bin For All” proposal, supported by billion-dollar companies such as IBM and hundreds of millions in financing from various sources.

Then Mayor Sylvester Turner came along.

Despite well-documented support for EcoHub from Mayor Turner’s top aides and advisers and, at one point, even himself, Turner has declined to explain why he decided against continuing with the One Bin project, instead opting to continue with the status quo. Last month, Turner announced a new $1.6 million-per-year contract with a standard recycling and trash collector, FCC, amid objections from Gitschel, who is now claiming that Turner snubbed him by excluding him from the bidding process for the contract and has destroyed his chances of building EcoHub in Houston. The FCC deal — yet to be finalized by City Council — stems from an October 2016 request for proposals exclusively from recyclers with business models like FCC’s, criteria that did not apply to EcoHub.

Turner’s decision to dump One Bin comes in spite of the $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge the city won under former mayor Annise Parker in 2013, based exclusively on the belief that Houston would go forward with One Bin. He dumped it in spite of the $650 million in bond financing Gitschel says EcoHub would have obtained from the Gulf Coast Industrial Development Authority to build the facility; and in spite of a $70 million grant application that EcoHub, partnered with a group called Circular Economy Remanufacturing Institute and 43 universities, submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy hinged entirely on EcoHub’s future in Houston.

“Without the contract from the City of Houston, all that work with CERI and all those organizations would have gone up in smoke. And yeah, it did, because we didn’t get the contract,” Gitschel said. “I don’t know that I have the capacity of really explaining how that felt.”

"You’ve got a private businessman who comes to you and says, I would like to make an $800 million investment in infrastructure, privately funded, in your community. All I want in exchange for that is your garbage."

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Gitschel had been in contract negotiations with the city since February 2015, when Parker’s administration chose EcoHub as the vendor for the One Bin project after a lengthy procurement process. At that time, Houston’s curbside recycling program was producing about a 6 percent recycling diversion rate, with about 80 percent of trash ending up in landfills. EcoHub was promising a 75 percent diversion rate, with 95 percent being the ultimate goal.

“The concept of EcoHub and the idea of one-bin recycling, from the beginning, its economic proposition was directly a part of the environmental concept. They were inextricably wed together,” said Dr. Jim Blackburn, a Rice professor and prominent Houston environmental attorney who supported the project. “Making natural gas out of the garbage and recycling all the other elements — that’s sort of the way we have to think about the future. It was a very interesting proposition.”

But by the time Parker left office, contract negotiations were still unfinished, and so she said she was leaving it up to Turner to decide what to do. In Turner’s first week in office, as originally reported by KTRK, Chief Development Officer Andy Icken sent an internal memo to Turner, telling him the contract with EcoHub was “nearly complete,” and said that One Bin would produce “better outcomes at lower costs.” He recommended Turner finalize the contract. One Bin would be completely privately financed by EcoHub, he wrote; there would be a liquidated damages fund just in case the project totally bombed and the city needed to restore its original solid-waste operations; and the city would save significantly on collections and fuel costs for its garbage trucks while producing better outcomes for the environment.

By June — months after Turner had already extended Waste Management’s contract for two years — EcoHub was still on the table, yet was facing significant opposition from Harry Hayes, the director of the Solid Waste Department.

According to emails obtained by the Houston Press, Maya Ford, a member of Turner’s inner circle and a family friend, pleaded with Turner to call a meeting with the main stakeholders, growing concerned about negative and misleading articles targeting mixed-waste recycling that she heard Hayes had shared with him. “There's more science to it, Harry knows this, and his inability to relay that speaks to ineptitude or favoritism towards existing businesses that benefit from our lack of innovation,” she told Turner, whom she called “Pops” and signed off with “XOXO.” “Go broader, please,” she wrote.

Gitschel says Ford had assured him countless times that Turner was seriously considering finalizing the contract and believed he would follow through — and in September, Turner even put that in writing in a letter of support for CERI. The group planned to submit Turner’s letter with their application for the Department of Energy grant.

“While recognized as the Energy Capital of the World, the City of Houston is also an environmental leader,” Turner wrote. “For example, Houston received a $1m award from Bloomberg Philanthropies to design and implement an innovative circular economy and materials reuse program that will position the City as the national leader in sustainable resource management. The program, which the City is in the process of finalizing, will achieve a minimum 75% landfill diversion rate by transforming the waste stream into manufactured products that can be distributed in the local economy.”

Yet remarkably, when faced with questions from KTRK’s Ted Oberg at a press conference last month, Turner adamantly denied that this letter indicated his support for EcoHub in any way. He got angry and accused Oberg of taking his statements out of context and making “absolutely false” connections. Turner rightfully stated that he was “not obligated to carry forth a project that began under the previous administration” — but he nevertheless failed to explain why exactly he dropped EcoHub cold turkey and ignored his top advisers while the contract was still clearly on the table throughout 2016.

The Houston Press sent detailed questions to the mayor’s office seeking those explanations, but spokesman Alan Bernstein told us that the mayor’s statements on this issue would remain limited to his comments at the press conference. Phone calls and emails to spokespeople for Harry Hayes went unreturned, and Maya Ford also did not respond to interview requests.

Jim Blackburn said he believes Houston missed out on an opportunity to become a worldwide leader in rethinking how we handle our trash. Despite Turner's silence on the project, to Blackburn it's clear that the city didn't move forward with One Bin for All because it was afraid of the risk, afraid that the vision would fail. It wasn't just city officials. Various groups, including the Steel Recycling Institute and even the Texas Campaign for the Environment, were seriously skeptical that EcoHub could recycle anything at all, given that the recyclables were mixed in with food trash and human refuse. The fear was that the recyclables would be contaminated — despite Gitschel's assurances that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had approved the elaborate decontamination process that all recycled items would go through in order to be re-purposed as napkins, cups and plates, among others.

"One hopes they'll be good and be able to do it, but I don't know how you know that without giving them the chance to do it," Blackburn said. "On something like this, you have to be willing to accept that there is probably a risk, to some degree, of failure, and I don't think major advances are made without that risk being ever-present. If we ask to be absolutely risk-free, we'll never make any progress."

Gitschel's only recourse at this point is to continue urging City Council members to vote no on the FCC contract. Since he did not submit a bid during the October 2016 recycling bidding process, Turner has said Gitschel lost his opportunity to be a part of it — but Gitschel counters that he submitted a bid protest letter in December. He says he never heard anything back. He has filed a formal complaint with the City Controller's office, and has not heard back.

“I don't see why any sitting mayor would turn this down," he said. "You’ve got a private businessman who comes to you and says, I would like to make an $800 million investment in infrastructure, privately funded, in your community. I will save you $25 to $40 million per year off your sanitation department budget, I'm going to employ 3,000 Houstonians, and I’m going to reduce your carbon footprint by one million metric tons. And all I want in exchange for that is your garbage. I don’t want anything. I don’t want any tax credits, any land. I just want your garbage.”

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn