Houston, Texas, has a recycling problem. The city has a fairly dismal recycling rate of 14%, caused in part by the fact that the city doesn’t charge residents for trash and recycling services, so recycling bins aren’t available to all residents. Add that to a lack of education and no mandatory recycling laws, and the future of waste diversion in the city looks grim.
Instead of trying to overhaul local culture and regulation, the city is working on an ambitious plan to build the first total material resource recovery facility in the U.S.—an innovation that would allow residents to toss all their trash into a single bin, let technology do all the sorting, and emerge in the end with usable products. The Total Reuse initiative is one of 20 finalists in the Mayor’s Challenge, a Bloomberg Philanthropies competition that will fund innovative ideas in local government.
In San Francisco, the city with the highest recycling rates in the U.S., 80% of all waste is diverted from landfills thanks to easily available bins and a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance. That’s a tactic that can work in some cities, but it’s not right for everyone. So Laura Spanjian, Houston’s sustainability director, researched with her team to learn what other urban metropolises were doing. They traveled to Europe. They examined the technologies that local companies were working on. And they found traces of their solution all over the place.
One company cited by Spanjian, Organic Energy Corporation, offers a one-bin waste sorting solution. A company called BHS operates a material recovery facility in San Jose, California—but it doesn’t deal with food waste. ZeroWaste can take care of that; the company operates anaerobic digesters to deal with food waste in the city. And CRI Catalyst Company—a Houston-based company—offers a technology that turn biomass into gasoline or diesel.
"There are tons of waste to energy companies. In essence, they want to burn your trash, and we don’t want to do that. [CRI] can take biomass, wood cardboard, some food and yard waste and turn that into a drop-in fuel to put into a car," says Spanjian.
Spanjian’s dream system combines many of these technologies: It would take everyone’s trash in one bin and send it to a facility that pulls out every piece of recyclable material and separates out food waste. Recyclable commodities would be sold, and food waste would be turned into compost or put in an anaerobic digester to power facilities or trucks. Another portion of the waste would be turned into gasoline.
She believes that technology is advanced enough to make this dream system. "Not all of this is new technology. A lot exists in the mining and refining fields. The technology to separate things out exists, but it hasn’t been used in the waste industry, it hasn’t been put together in the way we’re talking about," says Spanjian.
In a few months, Houston will begin the formal process of having companies bid on proposals to operate the One Bin for All facility. Once a winner is chosen, the city will need to ensure the facility is cost neutral or makes money and that it lasts for up to 20 years. Spanjian says that she would be thrilled if Houston won the $5 million Mayor’s Challenge, but that the process is going ahead regardless. "Having the grand prize money would help us go faster, help us implement to initial pieces that much quicker," she says. "But we’re on a path to implement this."