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CITY SEES WAYS FOR HOMES TO RECYCLE MORE BY SORTING LESS

Opinion
www.chron.com
(link to article ... link may expire over time)

October 9, 2012 -- In a city where only one out of seven tons of garbage gets recycled, officials quietly have pitched a great leap forward that would have Houstonians recycle almost everything without having to do anything more than take out the trash.

In fact, residents would have to do even less than they do now. Under what is being called "Total Reuse: One Bin for All," residents would wheel everything to the curb in one barrel and let the city sort it out.

If Houston can find a private-sector partner to help it build what could be a $100 million plant that would separate bottles from cans from paper from food from e-waste from yard clippings, the city would vault from one of the nation's laggards in municipal recycling to one of the paragons.

Currently, Houston recycles about 14 percent of its household trash, though an industry group pegs it at 22 percent. A third of the city's households cannot even recycle at the curb. The plant would make it possible for the city to keep as much as 75 percent of its garbage out of landfills.

No one else has built a plant like what Houston officials envision.

"This could have application across the country, and we all have things to learn in the process," said Andy Icken, the city's chief development officer. "It really would be mind-changing."

The idea is at least two to three years from implementation. There is no imminent deal with a waste collection giant to build a prototype plant for nine figures. Officials are not pushing the project publicly. The proposal surfaced in an application to the first Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, in which 305 cities are competing for a $5 million grand prize for the best idea for improving city life.

It does not hinge on winning the Bloomberg contest, though.

Foreign, U.S. tours

City solid waste officials traveled to Germany last year to look at a facility there. Laura Spanjian, the city's sustainability director, toured a plant this year in the city of Roseville, in northern California, that she said is, perhaps, the closest thing in the country to what Houston envisions. The Clinton Climate Initiative has lent Houston a full-time expert for free to help review the technology.

The plant would have conveyor belts, ballistic shredders, optical scanners, density separators and other technologies to sift from the contents of your trash can everything that can be recycled. At peak performance, the city could resell some of the dry materials and compost the food, or even put it into a digester that produces methane gas to power the facility. While all of these technologies have been put to widespread use, they have not been integrated into the kind of catch-all operation Houston envisions, Spanjian said.

"It relies on technology to look at every single material and decide whether that can be reused," she said.

Currently, one third of the city's households can recycle paper, plastic and cans by placing them in an 18-gallon bin at the curb. A third of households have the 96-gallon barrels that also take glass. The other third gets no curbside service at all.

Spanjian touts several environmental benefits to One Bin for All. It would increase recycling while reducing truck routes from three per home to one. That means reduced emissions, miles on the fleet and wear and tear on city roads.

No word from recyclers

As a business proposition, it would cut the city's $13 million in tipping fees at landfills, though Spanjian and Icken do not have an estimate of how much. Fewer truck routes also would cut the city's trash collection expenses.

The city's largest recycling contractors had no comment on the idea Tuesday.

"We believe something like this in partnership with the private sector can make money for the private sector and solve a problem we have in the city," Icken said.

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