Glass returns to Houston’s curbside recycling program

Houston residents can resume putting glass in their curbside recycling bins, city officials said Thursday at the opening of a recycling facility in northeast Houston.

The new plant, outfitted with advanced technology including a glass cleanup system, is operated by FCC Environmental Services, a Spanish firm that received a 20-year, $37 million deal to handle the city’s curbside recycling. With the plant’s opening, Mayor Sylvester Turner has effectively capped what proved to be a years-long struggle over the city’s recycling program, generated by plunging commodities prices that coincided with multiple tight city budgets.

The funding constraints prompted Turner to strike a two-year deal with the city’s longtime recycling provider, Waste Management, in which the city accepted only paper, cardboard, plastics and metal cans in the green bins used for its curbside recycling program. The move lowered processing costs under the stopgap deal before the city inked a long-term contract with FCC.

To recycle glass, residents for the last three years were required to drop off their containers at the city’s neighborhood depositories. Those facilities remain open, but residents can immediately begin recycling their glass curbside, Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes said.

The city began accepting glass in curbside recycling bins as early as March 11, the same month the facility formally opened. Officials did not announce the new policy until Thursday.

Hayes, noting that northeast Houston has a high unemployment rate, lauded FCC for building the facility in an area with an employment base in need of work.

"We will re-engage people who don't feel that there has been a dedication and commitment and opportunity,” he said.

The facility’s opening comes about 15 months after City Council approved FCC Environmental Services’ contract, which went through an arduous procurement process beset with several delays.

Mayor Sylvester Turner called the plant’s opening “monumental,” but he also acknowledged the city went through a long process to get it up and running.

“It did not happen easily, it did not happen overnight, it did not happen without challenges,” Turner said.

Under the contract with FCC, the city pays a maximum of $19 per ton to process recyclables in a weak commodities market, limiting its liability when prices decline. The city would recover a larger share of the revenue if prices for recycled material improve.

The city also owns the $23 million, 120,000-square-foot plant under the contract, though FCC will continue to manage operations and maintenance. On Thursday, the firm’s CEO, Pablo Colio, said the facility’s opening marked “the first of many (milestones) to come from our partnership” with Houston.

"We will continue our commitment to the City, education and the local communities, because a greener future matters to all,” Colio said.

Councilman Jerry Davis, whose District B contains the facility, noted Thursday that his district continues to be plagued by illegal dumping, an issue that he has battled for much of his tenure on city council.

With the new plant opening in an area where trash is commonly dumped illegally, Davis said he hoped parents would bring their kids to the facility "so they can understand how and where our trash is supposed to go."

The facility processes hundreds of tons of waste per day, with an annual capacity of 145,000 tons. Inigo Sanz, the CEO of FCC’s American division, called it "by far the most advanced facility in the U.S."

Glass “will be processed at the recycling facility using the most advanced technology available in the recycling industry,” Sanz said.

Inside the facility’s massive warehouse Thursday, machines hummed and a bulldozer scooped piles of waste into a dumpster-like container.

From the container, the materials are shuttled onto a conveyor belt, which carries the waste under a series of automated sorting robots that transfer the materials to their appropriate bunker.

The bunkers then feed the material into baler machines, which crush the waste into large cubes. The cubes are then loaded into trucks and taken to paper mills, plastic companies or metal companies, which can use the material to create new products.

Though Houston gains access to state-of-the-art processing technology through its contract with FCC, it also now pays much less for recycling. Under its prior agreement, the city paid Waste Management $90 per ton to process and resell its recyclables. Before inking that deal, the city paid a $65-per-ton processing fee.