By Julie Bonnin

When Houston made headlines for abysmal recycling rates last month, it dealt a blow to the work Mayor Bill White has been doing to improve the city’s environmental reputation. White, who was Deputy Director of the U. S. Energy Department under President Bill Clinton, has pushed to clean up the city’s environmental record, with victories such as special recognition for the city’s commitment to development of a solar infrastructure (from DOE this past spring), and its designation as the nation’s top municipal purchaser of green power (from the Environmental Protection Agency).

But there may yet be hope for turning Houston a deeper shade of green. Weeks after being called the worst recycler of the country’s 30 major metropolitan areas, city officials have announced their intention to launch an ambitious pilot program that involves the latest in “single stream” recycling.

Committed citizens, meanwhile, are picking up the slack wherever possible, with grassroots recycling efforts driven forward by citizen demand.

The city’s pilot program will use the latest technology to mechanically sort plastic, glass and paper, allowing a group of 4,500 participants to toss all their recyclables into a single 90-gallon bin, says Marina Joseph, a city spokesperson. The program, which will be funded by revenue from the sale of recycled goods, could be in place by November. Combined with other new initiatives such as expanded yard waste recycling and a renewed effort to educate its citizens about recycling, the city hopes to cut trash sent to landfills by 20 percent in the next 18 months, Joseph says.

“If the single stream pilot program is effective, we may very well be able to expand it to the rest of the city and increase our recycling significantly,” Joseph said.

Though good news, it doesn’t change much immediately for the hundreds of thousands of Houston area citizens who don’t have curbside recycling. Of 342,000 households, 162,000 are offered curbside recycling, Joseph says.

Because not all of that latter group choose to recycle, the city may swap underperforming neighborhoods for communities clamoring for a chance to experience the convenience of curbside recycling, Joseph says.

But even without curbside service, those who are determined to recycle, do.

Brigitte Collee, who helped organize a citizens’ environmental group in the community of Kingwood, a far north suburb of Houston, says increases in tonnage collected at local recycling collection recently led the city to provide bins weekly, rather than on alternate weekends.

Her group, Keep Kingwood Green, will continue to lobby for improvements as it works with the city, she says.

“You really have to want to recycle and it shouldn’t be this way,” Collee says. (Their website offers lots of practical advice for homeowners taking recycling into their own hands, such as guidance on home composting. See the picture, left, of a neat backyard set up featured by the Kingwood group.)

The group also has enlisted a grocery store chain to provide additional bins in its parking lot. Both locations become overloaded quickly – the mountains of plastics, cans and paper are a testament to Houstonites who are committed to recycling, even if it means regularly filling their vehicle with the castoff remnants of conspicuous consumption.

Still, as in most communities, while many people go out of their way to collect recyclables and haul trash to the bins, not everyone is so inclined.

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