Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Something Stinky, Part 2: Recycling Rates

This is a companion post to the questions I raised a few days ago about the trash portion of League City's waste contract. 

At the bottom of that post, I noted that, on October 31, 2012, I'd measured a recycling participation rate of just 43% of single-family households in my informal "study area".  This rate is potentially concerning from a financial perspective because it's so low. 

Here's where the analysis gets particularly frustrating because the information needed to properly assess this type of program is often either intensely politicized and/or is not publicly available in an accessible format.  The net result in this case is that I have far more questions than answers, but the questions are worth asking because, again, millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake

First of all, I note for the record that I am a huge, huge proponent of recycling - providing that the program is financially optimized to the point where it's in the best interest of the taxpayers who are footing the bill for it.  I'm one of those extremely rare homeowners who took the initiative to create my own superior recycling rolly cart...
Ain't she just a beauty??  Cost me six whole dollars for the spray paint to convert this regular trash rolly into an Ameriwaste-colored recyler.  This kind of container holds a lot more volume than the bins that Ameriwaste distributed, and it's also much easier to move around because it has wheels.  Photo from this post.
...and I would never dream of throwing perfectly good compostable yard trimmings or food waste in the regular trash - that's just an insensible waste of a valuable resource.
Photo from this post of just a few months ago, where I showed how simple the home composting process really is.  Not only can home composting keep a surprisingly large amount of organic matter out of landfills, the equivalent high-quality landscaping soil amendments that it replaces would otherwise cost about twelve bucks a bag by today's prices.  Talk about win-win-win: drag less waste to the curb, less waste ends up in landfill, more money in your pocket by virtue of costs avoided. 
Here's where the "not publicly available" and "intensely politicized" informational factors enter into the equation, though. 

My knowledge of municipal recycling challenges is partly predicated on what I learned as a previous homeowner in the Pineloch community of Clear Lake.  Pineloch was one of Houston's pilot program subdivisions for recycling several years ago.  At that time, we received information directly from Pineloch CAI (the homeowners association), but it was mostly in the form of paper circulars, which are no longer in my possession, unfortunately.  If I still had them, I could use them as concrete references for this post, but instead I must rely on memory.   

But here is what I do remember from those circulars and associated public discussions

Unless a municipality can raise recycling participation rates above a certain threshold, the program is simply not worth doing.  It costs so much in fuel, manpower, and equipment to deploy a recycling program that, without a good return on investment via participation, the municipality would be better off taking that same money and investing it on a different environmental initiative instead - the taxpayers would end up being better served that way.
City of Houston did a pretty good public outreach campaign in order to raise participation rates.  But they didn't really do it for the sake of friendly competition - I'm remembering that they did it because it was simply necessary to make the program viable. 

Compare these Round 2 participation rates (percentage of carts out) to the 43% that I measured about a week ago here in my League City example neighborhood. 
 Much has been said in the popular press lately about greenwashing - the process of spin-doctoring the facts to make a given situation or product appear more "environmentally friendly" than it really is.  Most of that coverage focuses on allegations of corporate greenwashing (such as this example), but municipalities often intentionally engage in this deceptive practice as well.  I'm not specifically accusing League City of doing this here - I'm simply noting that the practice manifests frequently across many levels of our government.  The example with which I am most familiar is the use of rain barrels.  In this post from a year and a half ago, I explained why they are not the magic bullet that many government outreach programs declare them to be.  And many munis know that these kinds of sales jobs don't represent reality - but their private conclusions about the issue often fall into the category of "the end justifies the means".  Specifically with rain barrels, raising environmental awareness within the public is frequently justified even if the method used to do it is actually cost-degenerative for everyone involved.

I don't agree with that analysis, first because it is cost-degenerative.  It lacks imagination and you have to remember that any cost-degenerative program also comes with a significant opportunity cost because it's displacing the non-cost-degenerative program that would otherwise be running in its place. 

And I also disagree with it because it's the kind of bureaucratic snow-job that gives conservation a bad name in general.  People are not stupid - they can detect when smoke is being blown up their rear ends.  League City's median family income currently stands at around $88,000 - this is an educated population that is fully capable of comprehending cost trade-offs on any issue.  Fully capable of comprehending what activities really are conservation-minded, and which ones are closer to the greenwashing end of the spectrum.  They can handle hard answers to real questions. 

So with those somewhat-rambling observations in mind, here are my questions for which I genuinely don't know the answers:
  1. In dollar terms, how much of League City's trash contract is being allocated to support the household recycling initiative?
  2. What are the recycling participation rates across League City as a whole?
  3. Do those participation rates justify the costs of the program?  Has LC evaluated this? 
  4. If they have evaluated that, can we see the resulting financial analysis?
  5. If not, does LC have any plans to engage in outreach or other measures intended to increase the participation rate to a level that would make the program financially more viable?
If I didn't have a job and a family, I might have the time to run down some of those answers myself.  But we have City employees who should be providing that kind of a public service, don't we??
Would City of Houston (which, due to its much larger size, has studied recycling cost-benefit issues extensively) continue to pick these things up if only 43% of households were putting them out?

Does this make financial sense for the taxpayers?  Or would we be better off taking the same amount of dollars and instead dedicating them to parks or public green space set-asides or some other environmental initiatives that actually build value for our collective futures?

I'd love to know the answers.


  1. All good questions.
    Participation rate can have nuances that need to be factored in somewhere as well - such as for folks like myself where I do recycle but don't put the bin out weekly if it's not full.
    Would the program be better served if I put the bin out every week regardless of the amount of content? I guess it all depends what is being counted.

  2. Obviously the only metric that means anything is weight, but LC is not equipped to measure that at the source, so I have to look at observed participation rates as the best available proxy.

    I have a feeling that if we looked at weight, the cost-effectiveness picture would be even more bleak. I remember from living in Houston that nobody wanted to put much weight into the smaller bins that we started off using (which 99.9% of participants still use in LC), because they were so awkward to carry. So many people would throw their cardboard and lightest items into the bin and then put the heavier recyclables into the regular trash rolly because it had wheels and was easier to move!

    I haven't studied Houston's program in detail, but I do know that, when they went to automated recycling (where the truck claw picks up the rollies and dumps them without the need for direct human contact), they started watching the weights very carefully. At one point it was rumored (or maybe even claimed) that they would cut off any neighborhoods that were not making their weight goals, for the reasons given above: it's not not a good investment if large numbers of people decline to participate. And Houston also collected recycling every two weeks, not every week (those 96 gallong green rolly carts could easily hold 2 weeks worth from an average family).

    Houston city government has a reputation for being liberal, and liberal in Texas is generally stereotyped as somewhat loosey-goosey with public funds, but those Houston folk were some unforgiving pencil-pushers when it came to managing those costs. And that's the way it SHOULD be, in my opinion (and actually I believe the whole thing started under Bill White, so it's not a surprise that it was held to a high performance standard).


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