Published in The Tribune, 13 September 2017

Recycling has taken a giant step backward since Harvey visited the Lake Houston area a few weeks ago. Most residents who suffered damage quickly followed the protocol of hauling everything out to the street where they made a big pile. The action is quick and within just a few days (three or four) the house is gutted.  Here in Kingwood the volunteers were everywhere to help!  While the Solid Waste Department and FEMA instructed that all materials be separated into six categories, no one told the volunteers or stressed residents. None of us had electricity or internet service. In almost all situations it was just one giant pile all mixed together.

In my neighborhood, on Monday (Labor Day) at 8 AM, giant trucks and cranes arrived from San Antonio to begin collecting the piles.  The first pick up near me was a giant oak that had fallen.  It was gone in 15 minutes. These guys are efficient.  They even raked up the leaves.  All piles began disappearing fast.  The mayor came out to have a press conference with Councilman Martin and State Representative Huberty.  We are all going to get through this, hopefully sooner than later and be Houston Strong!

From my standpoint, the City, County, State, and Federal governments have done a good job under the circumstances.  Loss of life has been minimal compared to other such events like Hurricane Katrina.  Relief efforts have been pretty efficient.  There have been few stories of people starving or not having a shelter nearby. Empty water bottles are everywhere.  Volunteers, relatives and friends have stepped up and done remarkable things.  I was amazed at the armada of boats, kayaks, canoes and other floating devices that went past my house on their way to rescue people, pets, and possessions.  Next came the armies of volunteers to carry out furniture, appliances, and stuff. Then they started to cut out sheet rock, paneling, and pull up carpets.  They took down doors and cabinets and hauled them to the street. Now, the trash piles are disappearing quickly.  Hopefully the contractors and suppliers can put our houses back together again quickly—and FEMA or our insurance companies won’t give us too much grief and will help to pay some of our bills.

The City tells us that due to the health hazards of leaving these piles on the street they are taking it straight to the Atascocita landfill to expedite getting it off the streets.  There will be no sorting there.  Our toxic chemicals, appliances, electronics and everything else that are in the piles will be buried in Atascocita for all time!

No criticism is intended in this article.  However, always when finishing a project or any event, it is good to spend a few minutes and think about how you could have done it better.  At my old employer they always made us do a “lessons learned” page to keep in the file for the next time.  While Harvey was certainly not a project, it was an event most of us will never forget!  So, first off I am going to suggest a few things we as residents can do in the future and then a few suggestions for the City and County.

As residents we all are quick to criticize companies and others when they pollute.  We as residents are not blameless when it comes to pollution.  We buy too many chemicals, poisons, fertilizers, paints.  When we find they either don’t work or we bought too much, we store them in the garage or under the sink.  Thanks to Harvey they are now on the street or at the landfill or maybe in the lake or river.  We need to think before we buy and then when we are done with the product we need to recycle it properly at a hazardous waste facility.  I am guilty!  I am a pack rat!  When we are done with electronics or an appliance we need to recycle it.  The City offers once a month electronic recycling at the metro lot and once every six month BOPA and appliance recycling at the BOPA.

Looting has been a big concern in my neighborhood.  There is a fine line between people looking to salvage something out of the pile and someone coming in and stealing things you are not willing to give away.  Perhaps all of us should try to do a better job of separating these items in the future.  If someone can use or even make a few dollars from the things we are throwing away, we probably should encourage that versus it all going to the landfill.  There is a big difference, however between people picking up things they can use if given permission and those who enter homes, cars and garages to take things.  For those looters, a sign here in Kingwood that says “you loot, we shoot” says it all.

For the City and County, somehow they need to make recycling of hazardous waste more accessible to us here in the Lake Houston area.  Yes, if residents buy the stuff, they too should be willing to recycle it properly.  Unfortunately, how many Lake Houston residents will drive the 30 miles or more to take these items to the two City or one County facilities where these items are accepted.  Hence we pile it up in our garage or dispose of it illegally. World class cities and counties figure out ways to make more locations and better hours available for residents than Houston and Harris County do.  Small businesses really have no options for recycling hazardous waste so most put it in with trash.  Yes, it costs money for government to do these things, but isn’t public safety part of what our City and Country should be doing?  Someday will the landfills of today be the EPA Super Fund toxic waste sites of the future?

Some good news! The City tells us they will again have the weekend recycling bins at the Kingwood Metro lot beginning on the afternoon of September 8th.  Some/many of us are almost back to normal after Harvey but for many of us it will be months or maybe even years!  We face lots of uncertainties in the months ahead, but one thing is for sure, if you let your recyclable items go to the Atascocita landfill, they will be there forever.

Comments or suggestions?