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Political Culture, or Feckless Political Elite?

[ 28 ] July 31, 2008 |

Houston has a problem:

Houston recycles just 2.6 percent of its total waste [30th among the 30 largest American cities], according to a study this year by Waste News, a trade magazine. By comparison, San Francisco and New York recycle 69 percent and 34 percent of their waste respectively. Moreover, 25,000 Houston residents have been waiting as long as 10 years to get recycling bins from the city.

Explanation?

“We have an independent streak that rebels against mandates or anything that seems trendy or hyped up,” said Mayor Bill White, who favors expanding the city’s recycling efforts. “Houstonians are skeptical of anything that appears to be oversold or exaggerated. But Houstonians can change, and change fast.”

Ooh, an independent streak! But wait…

Even largely blue-collar Milwaukee and the rival Texas metropolis of Dallas, both with larger recycling budgets and smaller populations, have significantly higher recycling rates than Houston.

Dallas’ rate is roughly five times that of Houston. I guess the people of Dallas-Fort Worth don’t have an independent streak.

But city officials say the biggest barrier to recycling in Houston is cheap landfill fees. It only costs $32 to dispose of a ton of waste here, compared with $70 in the Northeast, according to the National Solid Wastes Management Association’s latest survey, in 2005.

Some reject that argument, however, citing other cities with even lower landfill fees.

“Blaming landfills is a completely flawed argument, old-fashioned thinking that is really just laziness,” said Eric Lombardi, the director of Ecocycle, the nation’s largest nonprofit recycler, in Boulder, Colo.

Mr. Lombardi’s operation claims a 60 percent recycling rate, despite landfill fees of $15 a ton — less than half of Houston’s costs. With commodity prices at a record high, he said, if recycling can be profitable “in my landlocked state without easy access to buyers like China, then it can be profitable anywhere.”

What we seem to have here is a city political class that’s unwilling to make the effort to make the case for recycling. This political class would appear to be using political culture (“we rebel against anything trendy or hyped up”) as an excuse not to invest more in the infrastructure necessary to maintain a recycling program. It doesn’t help, of course, that the state of Texas seems utterly uninterested in pushing Houston to do anything useful. Here’s a critical line:

About 25,000 households are on the waiting list for the bins, but the city says it cannot afford more bins. Those without the special bins must cart their recyclable garbage to one of just nine full-service drop-off depots in the city.

Right. The problem isn’t that 7% of the city’s households are being denied recycling bins because of lack of funding; instead, it’s all about the independent streak. Makes it seem more democratic if you put it that way.

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