Who has love for Houston's proposed dirty MRF?

Who has love for Houston's proposed dirty MRF?

By Jake Thomas, Resource Recycling

In Texas, an environmental advocacy group has launched a campaign aimed at derailing the City of Houston's plans to secure funding for an ambitious project called "One Bin for All," which would allow residents to put all their discards in one container that will be sorted out at a new multi-million dollar facility.

During the fall of last year, Houston's proposal to build a dirty materials recovery facility (MRF), which sorts recyclables out of trash, was selected as a top 20 finalist out of 305 entries by Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, a competition that uses cashes prizes to spur cities to come up with innovative ideas to solve urban problems. The city that wins the grand prize will receive $5 million, with four other competitors receiving $1 million each. Winners will be announced this spring.

Houston's idea will allow residents to toss trash along with recyclables, food scraps, yard trimmings and even e-scrap into one bin that will be sent to a giant MRF that will sort the various materials. City officials expect the facility to help Houston raise its waste diversion rate to 75 percent.

"Our innovation will redefine the concept of waste," says a narrator's voice in a video posted on The Huffington Post describing the project. The video goes on to describe the proposal as a "revolutionary idea" that will allow residents to treat "trash as recycling."

The video also includes Andy Icken, chief development officer for the city, describing the project as first-of-its-kind that combines and draws upon technology that has proven effective elsewhere.

Houston has struggled with a low recycling rate percent of 22 percent or lower and doesn't provide collection services for all residents, reports The Houston Chronicle. According to the paper, city officials have toured Germany to view facilities there. They've also toured one in Roseville, California, which officials say has the closest thing to what they want to build.

"Why aren't they looking at more tried-and-true methods of increasing diversion rates?" said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, speaking to Resource Recycling in January.

The TCE doesn't see innovation in the project, but rather a misguided way to raise the city's recycling rate. The group is now circulating a sign-on letter intended to sway Bloomberg Philanthropies to not fund Houston's dirty MRF aspirations.

"While we are pleased to see the fourth largest city in America adopt a commitment to waste diversion, we, the undersigned recycling and Zero Waste advocates and innovators, must express deep skepticism about the proposal the City of Houston has made, and we urge the Bloomberg Foundation to reject this proposal," reads the letter.

The letter states that the idea is not "brand new" and is merely a "new angle on a technology which has been tried over and over again with no real success." Facilities using this technology generate low-quality recyclable materials, much of which are sent to landfill, the letter states.

The Roseville MRF, which Houston points to as smaller version of what it hopes to build, achieves only a 35 percent recovery of residential waste, according to the letter. Nine percent goes to landfills as daily cover, meaning that only 26 percent of household waste is actually being recycled.

A call to the Roseville facility was not returned by press time.

According to the letter, the city's grant proposal states that efforts to educate citizens to separate their recyclables have failed. The letter points out that 45 percent of residents have no recycling services at all and states that "education in the absence of opportunity cannot be expected to yield results."

"The solution to Houston's low recycling rates is not an expensive gamble on an experimental materials recovery facility similar to those proven ineffective in other communities," reads the letter, which calls on the city to instead make investments in curbside recycling services.

The objections being raised by TCE aren't shared elsewhere.

"We neither oppose it or support it," reads a short emailed statement from Houston-based Waste Management, the country's largest waste and recycling company, regarding the project.

Johnny Gold, senior vice president for recovery and recycling for the Newark Group, told Resource Recycling in an email exchange that if material from a dirty MRF met his company's quality standards then he would have no problem accepting it.

Mark Bowers, solid waste programs division manager city of Sunnyvale, California operates a dirty MRF, which he prefers to call a "mixed-waste processing facility."

The facility he operates serves the cities of Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto. During the last fiscal year, it brought in over 181,000 tons of garbage, 19,000 tons of recyclables and 25,000 tons of yard trimming.

Bowers says that the material brought in is source-separated, but mistakes happen along the way and processing the garbage diverted 26,000 tons of material last year.

"It's a belt and suspenders approach, but it maximized diversion," he says.

Bowers says that he's familiar with the Roseville facility, and says that it's run well.

When asked about the one-bin approach being pursued by Houston, he didn't say if it was a good or bad idea.

"I would give a diplomatic answer that every community is unique and should have the authority and the right to make its own decisions about how to approach getting recyclables out of the waste stream," he says. "You want to do what works."

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