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By Data-Smart City Solutions

As one of the winners of the 2012-2013 Mayors Challenge, the City of Houston received a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to implement its winning idea, One Bin for All.  The One Bin for All project will dramatically increase recycling using game changing technologies – allowing residents to discard all materials in one bin, treating “trash” as a valuable asset.  “The City of Houston used the Mayors Challenge as an opportunity to completely rethink and redefine an intractable city problem,” said James Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies. “Houston’s vision is to transform how big cities recycle, using new technologies to take the onus out of the hands of citizens, achieving a much higher recovery and diversion rate.” More information on the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge can be found at bloomberg.org/mayorschallenge.

Almost half of Houstonians cannot recycle curbside.  The City currently struggles to pay for waste and recycling services from its general fund, and thus has one of the lowest residential recycling rates in the nation.  Currently only 19% of Houston’s waste stream is diverted from landfills for recycling; in comparison, the national average was 34% in 2010.  By applying proven technologies and new processes, Houston will provide every resident with a new form of curbside recycling service, allowing residents to throw all waste in a single bin and redefining municipal solid waste from a liability to a valuable asset.

Most recycling programs rely on residents to distinguish trash from recycling and to sort accordingly.  One Bin for All will use technology and new processes to sort household materials at a to-be-constructed facility, initially achieving a 55% diversion rate, which will increase to upwards of 75% with composting, anaerobic digestion, and catalytic conversion (biomass-to-fuel).  Many of the One Bin for All technology and process components have long been used in the waste, mining, food, or refining industries, but currently no facility integrates all of them – the City of Houston is changing that.

The process utilized in Houston will remove materials of less than two inches early in the sorting process to minimize contamination.  From there, products will be sorted into various “streams” for resale, reuse, or disposal. In addition to mining all conventional recyclable commodities, the design will produce compost or carbon-neutral fuel streams from the remaining organic waste.  All components of the facility and process are field-tested and proven, arranged to maximize productivity, uptime, and diversion rates.

Houston will use a public-private partnership to build and operate the facility and may create a local government corporation (LGC) to administer the contract and provide oversight.  In this arrangement, Houston will provide 60% of the facility’s needed waste volume; other regional governments and/or commercial entities will be able to partner and participate in the project, sending their waste to the new facility.

The Impact

The most obvious benefit of the project is reducing the amount of material sent to landfill each year. In addition, by recovering and recycling more material from its waste stream, Houston will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.  The principal source of the reduction will come from diverting organic material (primarily food) away from the landfill, because its decomposition releases methane.  Currently, almost 100% of food waste is sent to the landfill, but this innovation will reduce that to 25% or less. By reducing emissions from landfill gases and removing some of the City’s collection fleet, the project’s impact could be equivalent to removing 5,000 vehicles a year from the City streets.

Route optimization will also help Houston save money by reducing the number of truck routes to develop, manage, and operate; therefore reducing fuel costs and operational costs. Aside from reducing costs, One Bin for All will increase revenue by creating additional commodities, such as bio-fuels and biomass, that will be available for use in industry and manufacturing.

Growth in companies that manage the recyclable materials is anticipated from the additional commodities, providing economic benefit to Houston and the region.  In total, the economic impact is estimated to be $90-100 million, with over 100 direct local jobs created.  

An RFQ process last summer identified vendors interested in providing and building the state-of-the-art technology-enabled waste management facility. A waste characterization study will be completed this spring. It will help define the parameters of the City’s waste and allow for accurate estimates of the return on investment for the facility to be built later this year. An RFP process this spring will identify the most advantageous vendor for the city.

Replication Potential

Many other cities are interested in innovative waste management because of the prevalence of such challenges as landfill space constraints, environmental effects, and high landfill costs. Additionally, two states, California and Florida, have already adopted regulations requiring 75% diversion by 2020 to drive innovation in this area; likely a growing trend.

Houston is sharing its experience evaluating these new waste diversion technologies and will share lessons from building the facility and implementing the overall system. The goal is to be open about what works and the main challenges in order to ease replication. Should Houston’s initiative be successful, it will make it easier for future projects to secure financing and will provide cities with a proof point on the effectiveness of the new combination of technology.

One key challenge is that cities must have enough waste volume to make the facility financially feasible.  While the innovation is optimized for a large city’s waste stream, small and mid-size cities can benefit by working together through intergovernmental agreements and public private partnerships with commercial sector companies and waste companies. Cities must also have the political will and leadership with vision to institute the necessary large-scale change.

What does the Mayors Challenge victory mean for Houston?  “The City of Houston is excited to work on this game-changing technology… there is so much opportunity to work towards something that could have huge positive benefits for Houston, the region and the nation,” said Laura Spanjian, the Sustainability Director for the City of Houston.  “One Bin for All’s powerful metaphor is that everything is a resource and everything can be repurposed.”

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