The Kingwood community is dedicated to recycling. Each weekend, you can see throngs of recyclers dutifully showing up at the Kingwood Metro Park and Ride recycling station in Town Center to empty their cardboard, plastics and other recyclables.
A peek down the street of your neighborhood reveals colored bins lining driveways, ready for recycling day curbside pickup.In 2015, the City of Houston expanded curbside recycling to all city neighborhoods serviced by the Solid Waste Management Department. The effort, referred to as single-stream recycling, meant residents could put all their recycled items into the big green bins.
Many Houstonians considered this a major victory to keep reusable material out of landfills.
Your recycling gets recycled, right? Maybe, or maybe not.
Despite these efforts, are Houston’s recyclables nevertheless ending up in landfills? Have you ever wondered what happens to your recyclables after they leave your home? Recyclables end up at a multiple recycling facility (MRF) in Houston. At this sorting facility, items are separated out – plastics, paper, cardboard, aluminum – and packed tightly in large bales.
Where do the bales go?
Cities like Houston have traditionally sent these items – particularly paper and plastic – to China, the world’s largest importer of recycled goods. Late in 2017, however, China informed the rest of the world that it no longer was going to be a global garbage dump. China decided to focus its efforts on its own recyclables, so it imposed much stricter guidelines for the recycling material it is willing to accept from other countries.
Hal Opperman of Keep Kingwood Green, a volunteer group that works with the City of Houston to improve local recycling services, says China has enforced strict new laws after finding a lot of waste product in their U.S. shipments. The waste factor is significant; the New York Times has reported that China was finding as much as 20 percent waste in one bale of material. Now, China has set the waste product limit to a very strict one-half of one percent of the total load. That is a requirement that the U.S. and other countries just cannot meet.
As a result, trash is piling up in the U.S. and in other places like the U.K, Canada, Ireland and Hong Kong.
Why is there so much waste in the bales?
Opperman says part of the problem is that residents who recycle have good intentions, but bad practices. The industry even has a term for it – “aspirational recycling” – where people put items in the bin hoping they’ll be recycled, but they’re not.
People sometimes don’t take the time to truly find out whether something can be recycled before tossing it into the bin. Recycled items require a bit of prep work. For example, something as simple as tossing a peanut butter jar that still has peanut butter in it will result in that item being pulled at the MRF because the peanut residue will contaminate the process. That peanut butter jar will most likely end up in the landfill.
The top offenders: disposable cups (they’re lined with plastic and not recyclable), greasy pizza boxes (the grease interferes with the cardboard recycling process), non-recyclable plastics, takeout containers that still have food in them, plastic grocery bags, and dirty diapers (yes, it is gross, but people do this!).
What about glass recycling?
In 2016, the City of Houston voted on a new contract with Waste Management. That contract ended glass curbside recycling pickup. The city made the decision to save money due to its $160 million budget shortfall. Waste Management was providing about 1,000 tons a month of glass recycling to Strategic Materials, North America’s largest glass recycling company.
When the city curbed glass recycling, the company was only getting 100 or 200 tons instead. At the time, Mayor Sylvester Turner explained the city’s decision: “The maximum cost of the recycling contract is $5.7 million. To the extent we can reduce the amount (of glass) that's in the green bins, it will lower the cost from $5.7 million to a lower amount.”
Instead of curbside pickup, Houston residents have been encouraged to drop glass off at 10 city-wide recycling centers, one of which is the Kingwood Park and Ride. Keep Kingwood Green reports that indeed two large bins of glass, sorted by clear and colored, are filled each weekend. Strategic Materials executive vice president Curt Bucey says that these 10 centers are not convenient to many Houston residents, so people simply don’t take the time and energy to drop their glass off.
Environmental advocate groups like Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) agree with Bucey, and say there is still a large amount of glass that ends up in landfills. Waste Management actually penalized the city for glass it received. The TCE also says that half of Houston residents dwell in apartments with little or no access to recycling, including glass.
The city’s short-term contract with Waste Management ended in March 2018, and the new long-term contract will include glass curbside recycling once again. In January 2018, the city approved a new contract with Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas, Inc. (FCC), a 118-year-old Spanish environmental services company headquartered in Madrid and Barcelona and doing business on five continents.
At the city MRF facilities, the operations are largely a manual-sorting process. The conveyor belt moves very quickly as employees try to pull non-qualifying items. Opperman said he and fellow volunteers are constantly instructing people at the Park and Ride to not put their items in plastic trash bags and then toss the whole bag into the bin.
“The MRF team cannot see the items in those bags, and they don’t have time to tear it open and sort through it, so it’s very possible that most of that ends up in the landfill,” Opperman said.
On July 10, the City of Houston Solid Waste Management Department held a ground-breaking ceremony for FCC’s new MRF facility design, complete with the latest advances in sorting technology. The new MRF is the second of its kind in Texas, and is slated to open sometime in mid-2019. It will accept both glass containers as well as plastic bags, and at that time, glass curbside recycling by the City of Houston is expected to resume, according to Harry Hayes, director of Solid Waste. The new MRF will handle 145,000 tons of annual capacity, more than double Houston’s current need.
What can I do to help?
The new Houston MRF facility will operate much like FCC’s Dallas MRF which started operations in early 2017. The facility uses the latest in sorting technology and classification techniques, including optical and gravimetric sorting machines and artificial vision technology.
Even with all the high tech, the best way to ensure that recycling doesn’t end up in landfills is to begin at home, recycling the right way by properly sorting items. Keep Kingwood Green says plastics have a number from 1 to 7, but No. 6 plastics are non-recyclable, yet account for much of the waste. Opperman also says that thin-film plastic grocery bags are not recyclable at MRF facilities because these film plastics don’t have a number. However, many stores like Lowe's, Home Depot, Wal-mart and Target have special bins to recycle these bags, which are taken to a special recycling facility.
Why doesn’t my neighborhood have recycling?
There are four major trash providers in the Kingwood area. The City of Houston trucks provide services inside the Houston city limits at no extra cost because the trash tax covers this service. The city services pick up once per week and provide free green trash cans and recycling containers, as well as green waste pickup which is sent to a composting yard. The city does not provide back door pickup.
When Kingwood was annexed by the city, each homeowners association (HOA) was given the choice of using the city services or choosing a private service. Twenty years ago, when the annexation occurred, the private services were substantially better than the city services, so many Kingwood-area HOAs kept the private service. The city still provides a emall, $6 subsidy for these services, but after 20 years, most now cost $40 to $60 per quarter. Waste Management, Republic Services and Best Trash provide these private trash pickup services. Most offer twice-per-week back-door pickup, but they send green waste to the landfill.
If your neighborhood doesn’t have curbside recycling, it is because your HOA has not contracted for it as part of your neighborhood’s overall trash service. All three private companies offer it, but they do charge a fee for it. Conversely, residents who want to save money and use free city services rather than a private contractor must discuss the issue with their HOA board.