Curb Your Mustard Bottles and other tales of curbside calamities

October 1, 2008 by  
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“The city’s shimmering skyline may wear the label of the world’s energy capital, but deep in Houston’s dumpsters lies a less glamorous superlative: It is the worst recycler among the United States’ 30 largest cities.” — The New York Times

THE CURB — If this is the third Thursday of the month, but with no holiday in the week, a full moon and if I have an odd numbered street address, except February which has 28 days, then I put out tree limbs, stumps and unlucky Mafia hit men, all to be picked up by waste disposal technicians, aka garbage men. Then again, maybe they do it tomorrow.

My problem, and possibly yours, is the City of Houston is beginning yet another convoluted but necessary garbage program. This new one deals with “tree waste.” I did not know trees have waste, although the Red Cross has a program to dispose of used pine needles.

Mayor Bill White says, in his stump speech, the tree waste operation “will help us divert at least 20 percent from area landfills and postpone the day when we have to invest in costly new ones,” giving a new meaning to branch offices. Fortunately, waste landfill around here is cheap, so the cost of burying our daily dead is low. But eventually we shall need new areas for our landfills. I suggest Arkansas.

As good citizens of Houston, we will certainly take part in this new plan, but when do we do what? “The City will collect tree waste exclusively on designated months on the resident’s current heavy trash collection day. On the alternating months, residents may set out their heavy trash or junk waste at the curb for City collection.” Sergeant, have this decoded at once!

We need to improve our garbage game, especially recycling. Actually, we couldn’t do much worse. As noted at the beginning of this column, Houston stands at the very bottom among the 30 largest U.S. cities in recycling: a miniscule 2.6 percent participation. In percentages, this compares to 34 for New York City; 62 for Los Angeles; and 55.4 for Chicago. To no one’s surprise, those tree-hugging San Franciscoites (Franciscoans? Friscoers? residents of San Francisco?) lead the nation with 69. The national average is 34 percent. Among Texas cities, Dallas stands at 11.5 and San Antonio battles Houston for the bottom with 4. Clearly, Houston’s recycle needs training wheels. The situation is not all our fault, as Rumsfeld told Cheney. Indeed, many Houstonians couldn’t recycle if they wanted to, which they don’t. Our city picks up garbage at 340,000 households, but fewer than half (162,000) have those green, plastic recycling bins. About 25,000 households are on the waiting list, some as long as 10 years, but the city says it cannot afford more bins. Those without the special bins must cart their recyclable garbage to one of only nine full-service drop-off depots around town. Yeah, that’s customer friendly.

The money needed for recycling caused the City Council to introduce a new plan: impose a mandatory $3.50 monthly environment fee for every single-family home. It was negotiated to a voluntary $2.25 charge and eventually dropped entirely because of fierce opposition. Incidentally, another unique point about us: Not only do most other cities have a separate garbage fee, the more they toss the more it costs. We are the only major American city where we can constantly throw away huge amounts of residential garbage and not be charged extra.

My neighborhood, Running Rats Acres, is fortunate to be a participating dealer in recycling. Every Friday we can look up and down the street and see the usual 90-gallon, black plastic garbage cans. In addition, every other Friday, alongside the black cans sit their Sancho Panzas, the mean green, lidless recycling machines, stuffed with Christmas catalogues, soggy copies of Sheep Dip Monthly and Bud cans, plus jugs of old motor oil and cat litter.

Wait! We can put out plastic only if the containers are made of categories Number 1 through Number 5 and Number 7, all of which must be rinsed and drained. “Sorry, Honey. We can’t go out to dinner tonight. I’ve got to separate our Number 2 cooking oil plastic bottles from the Number 8 mouthwash bottles, then clean them out. And no pizza or cereal boxes. Hey, how’d that coat hanger get in our bin? They’re not allowed. We could be reported to the Recycle Rangers.” Finally, to dispose of your used motor oil, drain it back into its original container. No empty oil cans. This makes no sense.

Be honest now. Do you really know the difference in Number 1 and Number 2 plastic? I have here an empty Gulden’s spicy brown mustard bottle, made of plastic. There is no code, secret or otherwise, confirming the bottle is made of Number 1, 5 or 324 plastic. On the bottom, however, if I get out my Hubble Telescope, I can spot the triangular recycle logo. Since different cities have different standards, does this logo mean the mustard bottle is recyclable for Houston or for Augusta, Maine? What’s my first clue? Did Colonel Mustard do it in the library?

Perhaps Austinites can toss this type bottle in the correct bin of which they have 45 — they separate Cokes from Pepsi, Coors from Miller, with each container separately steam cleaned, dried and flattened. We must wonder just how much energy they actually save. Los Angeles residents already have three separate recycling/garbage bins and are experimenting with yet another — for table scraps. There is more news, my garbage-scoffers. A recent letter from Mayor White warns 43 neighborhoods with 23,000 homes are not team players. Fewer than 10 percent of the residents in these areas are putting their recycle bins on the curb for pickup. If some neighborhoods — and he knows who you are — don’t start cluttering up their streets every pickup day, whenever that might be, they will be dropped from the recycling program, their homes given to evacuated Katrinians and salt sewn in their yards. Their children will be prosecuted even unto the fifth generation or until the Astros win the World Series, which ever comes first (I’m betting on the fifth).

In summation, put your trees on the curb each Arbor Day. Separate the wheat from the chaff, wash out your mouth with soap, put your used motor oil back in your engine and drive to San Francisco. Just remember: no coat hangers.

Suddenly I hear the groan of gears. We’re saved! Here comes the recycling truck, which stops at my neighbor’s curb. The truck is an interesting contraption with two big bins or black holes in back. Apparently one receives paper and the other is for mustard bottles. The waste management disposal technician walks over and eyes my neighbor’s work. Next to her big, black garbage bin is carefully separated waste — paper, plastic, metal, wood, animal, vegetable and mineral, each in its own sack. I am not making this up: After due deliberation, the technician opens the garbage bin and drops in every single sack, then leaves. Mayor White, I think I’ve spotted the problem.

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