City saves on sending waste to the landfill

Jan. 5, 2015Houston Chronicle

As a committee mulls an ambitious and controversial “one bin” project that could overhaul recycling and waste collection in Houston, the city’s traditional mode of getting rid of trash just got cheaper.

920x1240A renegotiated contract with the city’s primary waste hauler, approved by City Council late last month with little fanfare amid a deluge of end-of-year requests, is set to save the city about $600,000 annually, according to the city’s Solid Waste Management Department.

The $226 million contract to handle much of the city’s waste belongs to BFI Waste Services of Texas, whose parent company is industry giant Republic Services. The coveted contract underwent a massive rewrite in 2009 that did away with a painful “put or pay” clause that meant the city had to deliver a guaranteed amount of waste or cough up the monetary difference. Through the life of the contract, those changes will save the city an estimated $70 million.

The most recent savings, smaller but still significant as the city whittles away at a looming budget deficit, come courtesy of lowered tipping fees – the amount, per ton of trash, the city pays at the gate to a company to process its waste at transfer stations and landfills.

Those fees can add up, and in some large urban cities run more than $50 per ton. In Houston, the city has now scaled the fees back by about $1.50 per ton, amounting to about $23.50 per ton. Set annual price increases will continue as scheduled, but the city has essentially reset the clock on its landfill fees to a few years ago.

“We’ve been very mindful and particular with how we spend the public dollar,”Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes told City Council members last year during a budget meeting.

The city is Republic’s biggest local customer, deputy solid waste director of operations Victor Ayres said , which offers some leverage in negotiating lower rates. The city has sent less trash to the landfill during the past five years. In fiscal year 2014, the city sent 628,978 tons to the landfill, 10,000 tons fewer than the year before and about 21,000 tons fewer than in 2012

The new contract along with an expanded curbside recycling program have largely been overshadowed by the city’s pursuit of an ambitious one-bin system that would see residents throw all their trash and recyclables in one container. From there, the materials would be sorted and sold at a state-of-the-art facility built run by a private contractor. The city is still reviewing the five company bids, but could issue a recommendation as soon as this month.

Some environmentalists have blasted the “one bin” plan as untenable and foolish, while city officials contend it’s a bold approach that would dramatically improve recycling. The city has also pledged that switching to the One Bin plan would be cost neutral, with many critics pointing to the existing cheap landfill costs as difficult to duplicate.

Recycling efforts

As a city-appointed committee sorts through One Bin proposals, officials are trying to make good on the Parker administration’s promise that efforts to increase recycling and decrease landfill reliance would continue regardless of whether or not “One Bin for All” materializes.

“(One Bin) would definitely open up other windows,” Ayres said. “But we’re focused on expanding the single-stream option right now, which was one of Mayor Parker’s desires.”

And though the Texas Campaign for the Environment is among One Bin’s chief critics, Houston director Melanie Scruggs said the city has honored its promise to amp up recycling.

Avoiding ‘a boondoggle’

Last fall, the city announced that all Houston homes that receive city services will get 96-gallon recycling carts by early 2015, a milestone that has been years in the making as the city slowly expanded the program, frustrating neighborhoods that sought to be included.

The city recycles 6 percent of its waste, and diverts another 13 percent in yard waste from landfills – far off the national 34 percent average.

“The city has made a really good recycling investment,” Scruggs said. “We think it would be a boondoggle to throw away that investment, but they’ve been promising for months now that they were not just looking at One Bin. We appreciate that.”