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Thursday, September 28, 2023


City, University face recycling challenges

In a city lax with its recycling, how progressive is the University of Houston? With increased demand and recycling initiatives under way, UH is making strides toward improvement, University officials said.

A cornerstone of the increasingly popular "green" movement sweeping campuses nationwide, recycling improves efficiency in energy consumption, landfill use, air pollution and helps slow processes such as deforestation, among others.

Despite these benefits, one recent study found only 2 percent of trash in Houston is diverted for recycling, below the national average of 32 percent and faltering in comparison to cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it is estimated more than 60 percent of trash is recycled. Robin Blut, executive director of Keep Houston Beautiful, believes the statistic is misleading.

"It’s an apples to oranges comparison," Blut said. "The statistic only pertains to the curbside recycling program, which is only one small element of Houston’s recycling. Houston’s in a unique situation in that we don’t have mandatory recycling like other cities, so while there are obstacles, it doesn’t mean our city’s not prepared to address them."

Curbside recycling reaches 162,000 homes in the Houston area, but is struggling for participation in certain neighborhoods. An additional 23,000 homes may be dropped by the year’s end if they aren’t recycling.

Houston’s unique layout presents several struggles, most notably the wide, urban sprawl coupled with high fuel costs, says Houston’s Deputy Director of Solid Waste Management Edward Chen.

"We want to see all of our trucks go to neighborhoods with high participation. We don’t want to go where nobody recycles. Of course we want to educate and encourage people to do more than before, but going to a neighborhood where no one recycles wastes the taxpayer’s money," Chen said.

There are alternatives to curbside recycling, such as the pay-to-throw program, which charges residents for waste disposal. The less a resident throws away and instead diverts for recycling, the less they pay, a solution that has seen success in cities such as Seattle and Fort Worth. Chen says this isn’t a practical solution for Houston.

"Houston doesn’t have garbage fees, and you must have them to use a pay-to-throw program. People don’t want garbage fees," Chen said.

This hasn’t stopped Houston from trying, though. Glass recycling may return next year after being exempted from curbside pickup in 1999. Houston will also introduce a timber-recycling program that could save 90,000 tons a year from landfills and an 18-to-20 percent increase in Houston’s long-term recycling rates. There has also been a push for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification among Houston’s commercial builders. All of these actions can help Houston buck its reputation as environmentally indifferent, Blut said.

"Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Houston can do it."

So where does UH fit into this? Dave Irvin, assistant vice president of Plant Operations, said the University doesn’t have exact calculations on how much of its waste is recycled, but said recycling has increased notably as the University has improved accessibility.

"(Plant Operations) has had more people call and request recycling bins now than at any other time. Once we make it more convenient for staff and students, we feel like it’ll only increase," Irvin said. "As we continue educational efforts and inform people why recycling is important, we anticipate an overwhelming response."

UH has about 200 paper recycling bins across campus and about 50 for plastic recycling; the frequently used bins are emptied twice a week while others are collected weekly. The plastic recycling bins were donated by Coca-Cola as part of a contractual agreement signed with the University in exchange for the exclusive sale of Coca-Cola products.

UH continues its recycling program despite costs outweighing the financial return, said Pat Sanchez, director of Building Maintenance. Sanchez said most costs are related to employees and wages.

"(The University) is not anywhere close to where we want to be with cost, but the more people are conscious about and active with recycling, the better it’ll be," Sanchez said.

Moving forward, Irvin said the University will instead increase awareness and accessibility as opposed to motivational incentives. Plans began earlier in the year for an on-campus recycling center where students and non-campus residents alike could bring materials, but because of space restraints brought by recent and future additions to the campus, plans have stalled.

"We haven’t gotten as far as we’d hoped on the recycling center," Irvin said, "but we want to be good community citizens, good stewards of the environment. It’ll be something to revisit in the future."

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