This past Saturday more than one hundred civic and community leaders from around Houston attended the Waste and Environmental Justice Summit held in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. The Summit was held to discuss Houston's controversial One Bin for All recycling plan that 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 plan was initiated with a $1 million prize from Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of the Mayors Challenge, a contest rewarding innovation in American cities.
The Summit was co-sponsored by a diverse coalition of organizations, including the Houston Peace and Justice Center, Texas Southern University, Greater Houston NAACP, Sierra Club Houston Regional Group and Texas Campaign for the Environment--groups that are part of the Zero Waste Houston Coalition. Summit planner Melanie Scruggs, Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, emphasized the findings of the July 2014 Zero Waste Houston Coalition report, It's Smarter to Recycle: How Houston's Trash Proposal Would Waste Our Resources, Pollute Our Air and Harm Our Community's Health and urged the City to adopt them instead of the risky, untested One Bin for All plan.
Chris Butler from the City presented an overview of the One Bin plan timeframe and community outreach strategy. He assured Summit attendees the City would not move forward with One Bin if it was not judged to be "environmentally sound and economically feasible." Butler was asked to add "fair, just and equitable" to his criteria. When sustainability is evaluated, typically economic and environmental considerations are given primacy, while equity concerns are ignored or get left off the table altogether. This is why the "just sustainability" framework is so important when evaluating projects like One Bin.
There was general agreement among Summit panelists that the City should creatively spend the $1 million One Bin for All grant received from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg with the goal of advancing the best possible recycling plan for Houston, since he has $33 billion more where that came from--and Houston does not. Facing a $150 million budget gap, the city is now considering a garbage fee. In the end, Summit leaders were confident that if facts and history counted in the City's evaluation of the One Bin concept, the experimental plan would be discarded for a real recycling plan.
Several Summit experts came as far away as California and Virginia to share their expertise. Bradley Angel, Executive Director of Greenaction, joined the Summit from San Francisco. Having worked on hundreds of projects for three decades all across the United States and around the world, Angel's detailed and graphic presentation mapped a "graveyard" of failed and questionable experimental recycling projects and unmet promises--many of which sounded too good to be true in the first place. He also described the onslaught of "incinerators in disguise," proposed incinerators using gasification, plasma arc or pyrolysis technologies to treat garbage and other wastes. It was suggested that if Laura Spanjian, Mayor's Sustainability Director, had proposed the One Bin for All plan in San Francisco, where she served as Government Affairs Director at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) Muni before coming to Houston, she would have gotten "run out of town on a rail."
Lois Gibbs, Executive Director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, joined the Summit from home base in Northern Virginia. Gibbs reinforced the need for Houston residents to be collectively engaged in coalitions and organizing across diverse sectors of Houston--with residents that have historically been impacted by waste facilities siting and those who may not know they have been affected indirectly. She also urged the organization leaders to "flip the script" and mobilize to "change the rules of the game to empower ordinary residents." Gibbs concluded by saying, "facts are not enough, you have to organize and get in the face of those making decisions to make change."
The environmental justice presentation tracked waste facility siting in Houston over the past eight decades. From the 1970s to present, Houston's black and brown neighborhoods served as the "dumping grounds" and were "unofficially zoned for garbage," in no-zoning city. A detailed environmental justice analysis found the One Bin plan has the potential of extending this discriminatory pattern. The major flaws include: Not taking into account Houston's sorry history of waste disposal facility siting; unfair and discriminatory criteria that gives preference to siting "at or near existing landfills," a "grandfather clause" that disadvantages black and brown Houston neighborhoods where waste facilities have been historically sited; lack of diversity on the One Bin Advisory Committee, with most glaring absence of any Latinos; experimental plan that promises the world, but provides no solid documentation or empirical evidence where the "experiment" has worked or is working; and does nothing to advance tried and true single-stream recycling that is used successfully in other Texas cities and large cities all across the country.
The following recommendations are offered to the City and its advisors: Move beyond tokenism and select a One Bin advisory committee that is representative of our diverse city, which includes having Hispanics/Latinos on committee; add "just, fair and equitable" to the criteria City used to evaluate feasibility of One Bin plan; make public the five companies that are One Bin finalists; and dump the One Bin for All experiment and go with a real recycling plan. I am certain Mayor Parker would not want her legacy to be "the Houston mayor who used $1 million grant from a New York billionaire to dump garbage on poor black and brown Houstonians." A full PowerPoint presentation is available: "An Environmental Justice Analysis on Why the Houston One Bin for All Recycling Plan Should be Dumped."