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Total Reuse: One Bin for All

Houston's plan to put an end to landfills and upcycle food waste

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The city of Houston was recently named one of the winners in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayor’s Challenge competition. The contest pitted 300 ideas against one another to find the most innovative solution to a city-wide problem that could be replicated around the nation. Houston’s novel idea is dubbed “Total Reuse – One Bin for All,” and as one of the four runners up in the competition, they will be receiving $1 million to turn the idea into a reality. One Bin for All is part of an ambitious plan that Houston Mayor Annise Parker believes could radically increase the amount of recycling happening in the city, diverting 75% of all waste away from landfills while upcycling the city’s food waste.

The one-bin concept works like this: Every Houston residence is provided one bin for all their trash. That’s right, no more sorting bottles from cardboard and plastic, just throw everything into one bin. Even food waste, yard waste and electronic waste would go in the same bin. Then, when the trash is collected, it’s sorted by machines into different categories of items that can be recycled, composted or converted into biofuel. This would be the first total resource recovery facility of its kind in the country.

While some cities have had highly successful recycling programs — like San Francisco which boasts an 80% recycling rate from their city-wide recycling and compost bins — Houston was running a consistently dismal 14% recycling rate. So the city’s sustainability director, Laura Spanjian, brought together a task force to figure out how to increase recycling in new and innovative ways that would fit with the Houstonian way of life. Spanjian and her team traveled to Europe to see what different countries were doing, and they looked at local initiatives closer to home to see what was working at both the municipal and commercial level. After doing their research, the task force determined that a total resource recovery facility would be the best way to go.

The facility that Spanjian envisions would have several complementary components. Recyclables would be sorted and sold while food waste would be made into compost or turned into biofuel. While this may sound complicated to execute, Spanjian recently explained to Co.Exist, “Not all of this is new technology. A lot exists in the mining and refining fields. The technology to separate things out exists, but it hasn’t been used in the waste industry, it hasn’t been put together in the way we’re talking about.”

In just a few months, the city of Houston will be taking bids for the construction of the resource recovery facility. And if the idea proves effective, we may see it replicated in other cities around the country. Sustainable America has a goal to cut America’s food waste in half by 2035. Some 40% of the food produced in our country is simply wasted. Composting food waste and using it to create biofuel are two very important strategies for recapturing and reusing discarded food in a productive way.

Compost can be recycled into the soil to grow more food with better nutrients, and waste-to-biofuel initiatives help to produce oil alternatives that don’t compete with our food supply in the way that ethanol produced from grains and other food products does. Sustainable America supports and applauds this kind of innovative initiative, and hopes to support more of this kind of creativity in the future.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.