The Long Rise and Fast Fall of the Ambitious One-Bin Recycling Program

It’s hard to tell whether George Gitschel, CEO of EcoHub Houston, loves or hates garbage. He’s spent 25 years trying to find a way to get rid of it. But he also talks about trash the way a rosy-eyed antique collector or junkyard operator talks about the value he or she finds in old things nobody wants: To Gitschel, throwing away tons of garbage in landfills every day is a total waste of good resources.

So Gitschel started looking for ways to reuse trash, to recycle about 95 percent of what we throw away. “I started focusing my energy on how I might be able to end garbage on planet Earth,” he said, hardly exaggerating.

The result was EcoHub, an invention for which Gitschel has secured 21 patents in six countries, complete with a 58-step solid-waste recycling system that would separate our trash into all the many types of recycling streams, from standard recyclables such as plastic and paper to the rotting food we toss in the garbage, and turn it into new products like fuel and even shoes. You wouldn’t even need to separate your recycling and trash anymore — the physics and technology at the plant would handle that for you — and collection costs for the city would be significantly reduced.

For the past several years, Houston was poised to become the guinea pig for Gitschel’s invention — soon known as the “One Bin For All” proposal, supported by billion-dollar companies such as IBM and hundreds of millions in financing from various sources. Then Mayor Sylvester Turner came along.

Despite well-documented support for EcoHub from Mayor Turner’s top aides and advisers and, at one point, even himself, Turner has declined to explain why he decided against continuing with the One Bin project, instead opting to continue with the status quo. Last month, Turner announced a new $1.6 million-per-year contract with a standard recycling and trash collector, FCC, amid objections from Gitschel, who is now claiming that Turner snubbed him by excluding him from the bidding process for the contract and has destroyed his chances of building EcoHub in Houston. The FCC deal — yet to be finalized by City Council — stems from an October 2016 request for proposals exclusively from recyclers with business models like FCC’s, criteria that did not apply to EcoHub.

Turner’s decision to dump One Bin comes in spite of the $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge the city won under former mayor Annise Parker in 2013, based exclusively on the belief that Houston would go forward with One Bin. He dumped it in spite of the $650 million in bond financing Gitschel says EcoHub would have obtained from the Gulf Coast Industrial Development Authority to build the facility; and in spite of a $70 million grant application that EcoHub, partnered with a group called Circular Economy Remanufacturing Institute and 43 universities, submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy hinged entirely on EcoHub’s future in Houston.

“Without the contract from the City of Houston, all that work with CERI and all those organizations would have gone up in smoke. And yeah, it did, because we didn’t get the contract,” Gitschel said. “I don’t know that I have the capacity of really explaining how that felt.”

To read the full story, visit http://www.houstonpress.com/news/what-happened-to-ecohub-and-houstons-one-bin-for-all-recycling-plan-9601564.