Houston recycling plan will hit minorities hardest

Earlier this month, members of the Zero Waste Houston Coalition, a group of community, civil rights and recycling advocates, released a new report, “It’s Smarter to Separate: How Houston’s Trash Proposal Would Waste Our Resources, Pollute Our Air and Harm Our Community’s Health.” It documented failed track records, huge costs and pollution problems for facilities similar to what the city of Houston is considering under its “One Bin for All” trash proposal.

One Bin for All was initiated with a $1 million prize from Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of the Mayors Challenge, a contest rewarding innovation in American cities. The plan would allow Houstonians 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. Five companies are currently bidding for the city contract. 

The controversial proposal promotes a so-called “dirty material recovery facility” that will direct waste through an incineration process. The Zero Waste Houston Coalition report cites massive air pollution problems with the type of incineration technologies the city of Houston is considering under its proposal.  

The framers of One Bin appear to be insensitive to the sad history of solid waste disposal and garbage incineration in Houston that dates back more than eight decades. A One Bin fact sheet states that the “new facility will likely be located at or near an existing landfill,” giving priority to “existing landfills” as a preferred location for the new waste facility. This once again places the city’s black and Hispanic neighborhoods, which already disproportionately play host to landfills and waste facilities, at the top of the “potential site list.” Clearly, the One Bin facility location criteria is not innovative or creative. It mirrors old-fashioned, intentional discrimination.

Historically, Houston’s black and brown neighborhoods have been unofficially zoned for garbage in a no-zoning city. My 1979 study examining Houston waste facilities from the 1930s through 1978 found five out of five city-owned landfills, three out of four privately owned landfills and six out of eight city-owned incinerators were located in mostly black neighborhoods. More than 80 percent of Houston’s garbage was disposed of in black neighborhoods during this 80-year period, even though blacks made up just 25 percent of the city’s population. Today, some 35 years later, 100 percent of Houston’s solid waste ends up at landfills, transfer stations and recycling centers located in census tracts inhabited overwhelmingly by blacks and Hispanics — from 82 to 89 percent minority.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker appointed a 10-member One Bin for All advisory committee. According to an April 15 press release, the committee will “provide expertise to the city regarding financing, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental justice, and outreach and education issues as the city moves forward to significantly increase its waste diversion.” Only three of the 10 advisory members are female. The lack of ethnic diversity on the committee is even more telling: It is nearly all white. Of the 10 members, eight are non-Hispanic whites, one is Asian and one is black. There is no Hispanic representation on an advisory committee in a city that’s nearly half Hispanic. Non-Hispanic whites make up only 25.6 percent of the Houston population; blacks 23.7 percent and Hispanics 44.8 percent. Clearly, the One Bin for All advisory committee looks nothing like the city.

Houston’s One Bin for All plan has major flaws. The plan has the potential to extend the pattern of discrimination in waste facility locations that has targeted minority neighborhoods by giving preference to facilities “at or near existing landfills.” The advisory committee lacks diversity, with a glaring absence of any Latinos (in a city that’s nearly half Latino). The plan promises the world, but provides no solid documentation or empirical evidence of where the “experiment” has worked or is working. And it does nothing to advance tried and true single-stream recycling that is used successfully in other Texas cities and most large cities across the country.

Robert Bullard

Dean of Texas Southern University's School of Public Affairs