Trash is not free.

Houstonians pay about $100 million a year to run the city’s solid waste management department, which facilitates the trash and recycling programs.

The average resident can be forgiven for not knowing the cost of tossing a year’s worth of trash. Unlike most major cities, which charge monthly trash fees, Houston funds its solid waste management department from the general fund. So while someone in, say, San Antonio is likely to be conscious of their monthly trash collection fee – $30 for a 96-gallon bin (the standard size in Houston); $22 for a 64-gallon bin; $18 for a 48-gallon bin – the cost is not as obvious to Houstonians.

It’s time for that to change.

Construction trash in front of new homes
A local resident savages water pipes from trash in front of a newly built residential building, Feb. 28, in Houston. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

Running the trash route

Earlier this year, I spent a morning riding along with members of Houston’s heavy trash collection team as they wound through a sprawling route north of the 610 Loop. We spent hours slogging along the streets. We waited for backup when a truck required maintenance. We idled when a pile of furniture, illegally dumped on East Street, took 20 minutes to clear. And we watched the odometer tick up on the back-and-forth haul to the Fairbank Landfill in the city’s northwest corner.

Over the course of the morning, the department’s greatest challenges became clear: manpower and equipment.

Trash dumped on the side of the road
Illegally dumped fire extinguishers, stone bricks, beer cans and other trash sits on the side of the road Feb. 28 in Houston. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

So did a solution: a new approach to funding.

“This was an empty lot six months ago. There was nothing there,” Jeffrey Williams said, pointing out his truck window to a collection of small houses springing up on Batterson Street. Williams, the deputy assistant director of northeast operations for the solid waste management department, counted the new homes.

“So there’s one, two, then there’s going to be three more. That’s five houses on this empty, vacant lot. So that’s 10 cans we’ve added to this street – five black and five green, as well as heavy trash,” he continued. “That’s Houston – it’s happening everywhere. And yet, as a department, we have struggled with resources to keep up with this.”

Across Texas and the nation, Houston stands out as an anomaly for drawing its solid waste funding from the city budget. Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Chicago – you name it – rely instead on per-household fees. This means that when new houses pop up, the department is guaranteed additional funding to serve them. Not so in Houston, where the city limits the growth of revenue annually from property taxes to the combined rates of population growth and inflation, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

“You’ll hear Mayor Turner say a lot that we’re probably the largest city in the nation with a solid waste department that doesn’t have a structured fee for service,” the city’s Solid Waste Department Director Mark Wilfalk told me during an interview this February. “That makes a big difference, when you’re dealing with limited funding. At some point, we’re going to have to address that issue.”

The mayor’s office did not return several requests for comment on this story. But at a recent candidate forum hosted by the Eastwood Civic Association, all four of the mayoral candidates in attendance – Amanda Edwards, Robert Gallegos, Gilbert Garcia and Lee Kaplan –  said they’d be in favor of adopting a trash fee. That’s a marked shift: The fees have been floated for years, but have been unable to gain traction in the top tiers of City Hall. No one wants to be known as the mayor who made life more expensive.

  • Ray Osborne, waste disposal driver and equipment operator, watches tree branches being disposed of.
  • Trash floats on edge of Buffalo Bayou
  • Heavy trash crew in Houston
  • Buncles of tree branches
  • Pile of garbage in Houston

Environmental factors

“I get it. No one wants to pay more for anything,” said Josephine Valencia, the Prius-driving deputy director of San Antonio’s solid waste management department. “But I think one of the nice things about the fee is that it gets rid of the idea that garbage is free. What we buy as consumers has an impact and a financial cost.”

The average American throws out 4.9 pounds of trash each day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But more than half that trash is either reusable or recyclable, and upwards of one-third of it could be composted. And Valencia’s right – every ounce of that has a cost. The EPA estimates that the amount of waste composted and recycled in 2018 reduced America’s carbon emissions at a rate equivalent to taking 42 million cars off the road for the year.

What would happen if more people paid more attention as they tossed out leftovers, grocery packaging and the old cat-scratched couch you can no longer stand in your living room?

Monetizing trash is a step along that path. In San Antonio, homeowners can save $96 a year by downsizing from the most popular 96-gallon bin to 64 gallons. Cut waste to the 48-gallon option and the savings jump to $144.

I don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to be more mindful of my consumption and recycling habits to save $100 or so. And by pushing me to produce less waste, I’m destined to make more eco-conscious decisions at the grocery store and on

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...