The Mess In Texas (Houston: We Have a Recycling Problem)

The New York Times reports that of the nation’s 30 largest cities, Houston, the fourth largest city behind New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, comes in dead last in recycling, turning over a shameful 2.6 percent of its total waste. The Times cites a study conducted this year by my new favorite news source, Waste News, that puts New York City — roughly four times the size of Houston — at the top of the big city recycling list with a 34 percent rating.

The Times report goes on to say:

But city officials say real progress will be hard to come by. Landfill costs here are cheap. The city’s sprawling, no-zoning layout makes collection expensive, and there is little public support for the kind of effort it takes to sort glass, paper and plastics. And there appears to be even less for placing fees on excess trash.

Houston Mayor Bill White appears to pride the his townsfolk’s rejection of the recycling “trend.”

We have an independent streak that rebels against mandates or anything that seems trendy or hyped up. Houstonians are skeptical of anything that appears to be oversold or exaggerated.

And Mayor White supports increased recycling efforts! Of course, there’s hope. White says that Houstonians are amenable to change: “Houstonians can change, and change fast.” Thanks for the comforting words, Mr. Mayor.

But how fast is fast? (Vice) President Al Gore’s challenge of achieving 100 percent domestic clean energy within 10 years is visionary, and necessary. The planet has been backed into an eco-corner.

But a comprehensive recycling plan is not only not visionary, it’s doable, and so old school that it’s shocking the city has lagged so far behind. The fact that Houston has so shirked its responsibilities when it comes to responsible waste collection is far more ethically unsound than Ted Stevens’ taking feng shui advice from oil companies.

The Times quotes a local chef who was turned away from a city recycling depot. Why? She had too much recycling material!

They said my truck was too full. There are cultures that just don’t get it, and, unfortunately, Houston is one of them.

Recycling is the absolute least we can do as a society in resource reduction for sustainable living. The eco-mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is not crafted for cadence, rather, its words are listed in order of importance.

Houston’s recycling rates are appalling because the complexities of the planet’s environmental strife are so great, that recycling, the low-rent, feel-good, easiest possible way to take part in the environmental movement, should be rote for big city governments. You don’t need a ten-gallon hat’s worth of eco-knowledge to know that.

We now know that there is a 75 percent chance that within five years the entire ice cap will completely disappear during the summer months, increasing the melting pressure on Greenland. Hold this up next to the fact that of Houston’s 340,000 households, fewer than half have recycling bins, with roughly 25,000 households on the waiting list for bins and you see that we must urge our local governments and look at the big and small pictures, including the implementation of regular curbside programs that handle recycling.

According to the EPA, in 1999, recycling and composting activities kept about 64 million tons of material from ending up in landfills and incinerators. The country’s current recycling rate, about 32.5 percent, has doubled over the past 15 years.

Further, only one curbside recycling program existed nationwide 20 years ago, but by 2006, about 8,660 curbside programs had sprouted up across the nation. As of 2005, about 500 materials recovery facilities had been established to process the collected materials.

So where’s Houston? With only a fraction of the households of New York City: 162,000 as compared to NYC’s 3.2 million, Houston’s program is not mandatory, as opposed to New York’s mandated program. Also, just a detail of note, all of New York’s city vehicles that hand recycling operate off alternative fuels. Houston’s do not.

All throughout New Jersey, smaller towns are working with consultants in finding ways to devise a sustainability plan to conserve energy, reduce carbon footprint, and subsequently save money in the long term by way of resource reduction. Highland Park, Princeton, Montclair are just to name a few. And they are light years beyond recycling, conducting green community audits, and addressing transportation needs to reduce car traffic and pollution.

Governments need to be pressured to devise plans that have long-term environmental and financial benefits, and Houston, thanks to the Waste News, appears to have a long, long way to go.

By the way, the Times reports that Houston cannot afford more recycling bins for residents who don’t have one. Natch.

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