HOUSTON—Drive into any recycling center around Houston and listen for the sound of shattering glass.
Out of the trunks of cars come boxes and bags of empty bottles brought by people like Deenya Stibolt, whose Oak Forest home has limited curbside recycling that doesn’t collect glass. So about once a month, she drives down to her nearest recycling center with a batch of empty booze bottles.
“I have to come over more often than I’d like to say,” she joked.
She could easily toss the bottles into her garbage can, but she’s a true believer in recycling.
”What’s neat is that at my house I have very little garbage,” she said. “I don’t have to put my garbage out very often. I put a lot of recycling out. But it just seems like the right thing to do.”
Stibolt’s lucky to have any recycling service at all, because about 45 percent of homes where Houston trash trucks pick up garbage have no curbside recycling. Soon, though, if Houston’s mayor has her way, Stibolt won’t have to drive to the recycling center.
A major expansion of Houston’s curbside recycling program, affecting more than 100,000 homes, highlighted the unveiling of Mayor Annise Parker’s latest city budget, a $4.9-billion financial blueprint that restores most of the cutbacks implemented after the 2008 recession. As always, about two-thirds of taxpayer funds spent in the budget is dedicated to police, firefighting and emergency medical services.
Once again, Houston’s property tax rate remains the same, although most taxpayers will inevitably pay more because their property values are rising.
But the most conspicuous sign of the mayor’s budget priorities will be the trucks rolling down the streets of Houston neighborhoods, picking up a growing number of the large green containers that symbolize the city’s recycling efforts. The plastic bins resembling the city’s black residential garbage cans, which are already deployed at about 100,000 Houston homes, will spread to about 55 percent of homes serviced by city trash trucks, the mayor said.
Within three years, the mayor plans to expand the service to all homes where the city collects trash. (Houston’s city government doesn’t pick up everybody’s trash -- apartment complexes and businesses contract with private trash collectors—so the expanded recycling program won’t affect apartment dwellers and a good many people who live in multi-unit townhouses.)
The service is called “single stream recycling,” which is a complicated way of saying homeowners don’t have to sort out their recyclables. By contrast, about 100,000 homes—roughly one-quarter of all homes with city trash service—have small green bins people lug to their curbs after separating their newspapers from their aluminum cans and discarded plastics.
“When we go to the single stream in your neighborhood, we take away your awkward, heavy bucket and we give you this rolling green cart,” Parker explained.
The more convenient, 96-gallon containers on wheels have dramatically improved recycling rates, tripling the amount of recyclables collected in neighborhoods where the new system has rolled out. Drivers collecting the cans pointed out that they’re especially helpful to older people who have problems carrying the heavy old recycling bins.
“It gets pretty heavy when you’ve got paper, glass and plastic all in one container and you have to lift it and carry it to the curb,” said Ed Robinson, a longtime driver for Houston’s solid waste department.
Expanding the recycling service won’t be cheap, costing an estimated $21-million to cover the entire city during the next three years. But the more the city recycles, the less garbage goes into landfills. Houston’s city government doesn’t own any landfills, so taxpayers end up footing the bill for contracts with private landfill owners. Eventually, city officials said, the expanded recycling efforts are bound to save money.
The expansion won’t require hiring any new employees and it may actually save manpower costs. Those old “lug to the curb” green bins are picked up by trucks with two-man crews, city officials said, but the trucks picking up the bigger containers require only a driver.
About $2.2-million of the new budget is dedicated to a new radio system for police and firefighters that is finally allowing the city’s emergency responders to communicate directly with their counterparts working for Harris County. It also funds start-up costs for an independent crime laboratory.
The mayor’s budget also includes increased spending for a program to link the city’s parks and trails, as well as the city’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Control.