News Column

Houston Eyes Greener City With All-in-One Recycling

April 4, 2013

Brian Heaton, Government Technology

An award-winning sustainability idea could put Houston at the forefront of U.S. municipal recycling efforts by 2015.

Houston's "One Bin for All" program will allow citizens to put their trash in one container without needing to separate recyclables from other materials. The garbage gets picked up like any other collection route, but the trash contents are parsed out at a specialized facility where advanced technology will automatically sort and recycle useful commodities.

The program struck gold, as it was one of five finalists in the Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge, a competition where municipalities generate ideas that solve challenges and improve city life. Houston won $1 million last month to put toward its recycling plans, while Providence, R.I., took home the top prize of $5 million for an idea that helps local children with language skills.

While the One Bin for All program may sound like an opportunity for residents to recycle without really thinking about what they're tossing in the trash, Laura Spanjian, the city of Houston's sustainability director, explained that's not the goal. She said an education campaign will accompany the program to help encourage reuse before they put something in the garbage.

"We want them to think that now everything they throw away has value and is an asset," Spanjian said. "We want people to think differently about their materials, so we'll encourage people to reuse things before they put them in bins."

Project Plans

Houston hopes to partner with the private sector to build a facility at a local landfill that contains technology to separate items such as broken glass, dirt and broken ceramics that contaminate recyclable items. Machines would also separate items into separate homogenous streams to divide food waste from plastics and aluminum.

Spanjian added that the city might also use anaerobic digestion -- a process by which microorganisms are used to break down biodegradable material -- to turn food waste into methane. Another technology being considered is something that can turn biomass into gasoline or diesel without using thermal or other incineration that would produce pollutants.

The technology to separate trash is not new. Representatives from Houston visited cities in California, England and Germany to see how it operates.

Houston is putting together a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) right now, which Spanjian hopes to have released in about six weeks. She said the city has had informal conversations with the private sector and is confident they can find the right company to build and operate the appropriate recycling facility.

But the project won't be cheap. Spanjian estimated the facility will cost approximately $100 million with all the amenities and technology Houston has envisioned. The goal is for the private sector to foot the bill, in exchange for a long term contract with the city for its entire waste and recycling stream. Houston will also look into obtaining grant funds for the project.

If all goes well, a company will be selected for the project in the summer and potentially have a contract on the table for the city council and mayor to review and approve by the end of the year. Assuming the company breaks ground in 2014, the new facility should be up and running at some point in 2015.

Houston currently pays a fee to send its waste materials to a landfill and doesn't charge citizens for garbage services. The expense is taken out of the city's general fund. Spanjian hopes the new project will lead to lower costs and potentially generate some revenue.

"We're hoping this system will actually cost us less and make us some money because we'll be able to recycle so much more," Spanjian said. "We'll have [fewer] trucks on the street because they won't have to do as many routes because they aren't picking up multiple bins. So we're hoping this will save the city money and we won't be passing on any costs to the residents."