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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 7/13/14

Houston's Experimental Recycling Plan Targets Minority Neighborhoods for Waste Facility

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The Zero Waste Houston Coalition, a group of community and recycling advocates, released a new report, It's Smarter to Separate: How Houston's Trash Proposal Would Waste Our Resources, Pollute Our Air and Harm Our Community's Health, Thursday on the steps of Houston City Hall. The report details environmental problems and challenges facing the its "One Bin for All" trash experiment Houston is proposing to jumpstart its recycling program. It also documents the environmental justice and civil rights implications of the City giving preference to existing landfills for the location of its new One Bin for All waste facility. Houston since the 1920s has had a seedy history of locating its landfills, incinerators and garbage transfer stations exclusively in mostly African American and Latino neighborhoods.

The One Bin for All was initiated with a $1 million prize from Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of the Mayors Challenge, a contest rewarding innovation in American cities. The prize-winning plan would allow residents to mix trash, recyclables, yard clippings, food and other waste in a single container, to be automatically sorted at a first-of-its-kind $100 million plant to be built and run by a private firm. The City is now accepting bids from six waste firms who the report authors warn are attempting to sell the City on risky, polluting technologies.

The $1 million gift from former NYC Mayor is a Trojan horse fraught with hidden challenges and unknown risks to Houston residents. A City fact sheet claims "One Bin For All is the next evolution of recycling." One has to wonder if any of Houston city leaders and their advisors asked the question, if One Bin for All is so great why didn't Mayor Bloomberg seize on this remarkable "innovation" for New York City? The One Bin for All is an unproven experiment and a step backward. It's old wine in new bottle.

The controversial plan promotes a "dirty material recovery facility" or dirty MRF and will direct waste to an incinerator using gasification, pyrolysis or catalytic conversion. The report cites massive air pollution problems with trash gasification or pyrolysis, which are incineration technologies the City of Houston is also considering under its proposal. Not a single trash gasification incinerator has operated successfully in the U.S., but overseas they have caused health-threatening pollution violations such as dioxin emissions. The report examines dozens of "one bin"-style waste facilities that have failed in other cities or are only used as a last resort for the garbage stream. Their research contradicts claims made by proponents at the City who say the technology is now capable of recycling the vast majority of residential trash.

The framers of One Bin for All appear to be ignorant of or insensitive to the sad history of solid waste disposal and garbage incineration in Houston dating back to the 1920s. The One Bin for All fact sheet states the "new facility will likely be located at or near an existing landfill." This statement is tantamount to the "grandfather clause" of the Jim Crow era used to give voting privileges and preferences to white males who had grandfathers who voted, while denying the vote to blacks whose forefathers were systematically by law denied the right to vote. Specifically, giving priority to "existing landfills" as a preferred location for the new "dirty MRF" once again places the city's Black and Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods (that host landfills and waste facilities) at the top of the "potential site list" and at the same time provides privilege and advantage to Houston's mostly white neighborhoods (where there are no landfills) by taking them off the table as equally desirable potential sites for the proposed One Bin facility.

Such a "targeted siting" preference on its face is discriminatory and may offer opportunities to be challenged under our federal civil rights laws. The "existing landfill" preference builds on past discriminatory waste facility siting in Houston (which historically disproportionately impacted Blacks and Hispanic/Latinos) and thus fails to provide "equal protection" for all of its residents as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Clearly, One Bin facility siting is not innovative or creative. It's old fashion discrimination.

Much of my research beginning in the late 1970s and continuing into the 2000s shows Houston's black neighborhoods bearing the brunt of city-owned and privately-owned landfills, incinerators, and garbage transfer stations. Over a 50-year period (1920s thru 1978), five out of five city-owned landfills (100%), 3 out of 4 privately owned landfills, and 6 out of 8 city owned incinerators (75%), were located in mostly black neighborhoods. More than 80 percent of Houston's garbage was disposed in black Houston neighborhoods that made up 25 percent of the city's population. This discriminatory solid waste facility siting pattern triggered the 1979 Bean et al v Southwestern Waste Management Corp. lawsuit, the first case in the U.S. to use civil rights laws to challenge environmental discrimination in siting of waste facilities.

Now, some 35 years after the Bean case, 100 percent of Houston's solid waste ends up at landfills and transfer stations located in neighborhoods (census tracts) inhabited overwhelmingly by blacks and Hispanics--from 82 percent to 89 percent minority. Houston is often marketed as one of the "most ethnically diverse large cities" in America." However, there is nothing diverse about neighborhoods that are forced to host waste facilities and city policies that allow garbage to be dumped on its people of color residents. In a city without zoning, diversity stops at the census tract border of White Houston when it comes to locating waste facilities. For the past nine decades, a form of outdoor apartheid turned Houston's people of color neighborhoods into the "dumping grounds" for garbage. Houston's people of color neighborhoods have been "unofficially zoned" for garbage.

The City announced its latest expansion to the big, green recycling bins at the beginning of June and is set to make more expansions by the end of the year. The Zero Waste Houston Coalition hopes that after the City takes a look at the bids on July 10, officials will decide to abandon the "One Bin for All" proposal once and for all. Houston should end its sad legacy of dumping garbage on its people of color residents.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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