After 3 years, $1 million, city has little to show for recycling proposal

Friday, June 30, 2017
After 3 years, $1 million, city has little to show for recycling proposal
After 3 years, $1 million, city has little to show for recycling proposal.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- After a long bid process, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's solid waste team has picked a new recycling contractor.

If approved by the full city council, the new deal locks the city in on a 15-year contract for millions per year.

ABC13 wanted to know how the city got to this point, especially since the city once had a high-profile plan to recycle more for less.

In 2013, the city of Houston unveiled a prestigious million dollar grant to work toward collecting all your trash and recycling and remake much of it into brand new products. The city spent years trying to finalize a deal. Then it fell apart and it's incredibly tough to figure out why.

One Bin Plan

What is "One Bin"? The creator of the plan explains what it would do for garbage.

For three years, George Gitschel worked with the city of Houston to bring his Ecohub here.

It would've collected trash and recyclables in one bin and recycled up to 75 percent of it. That million dollar grant was from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2013 to put it all together.

"Literally what this can do is get rid of garbage on planet earth," Gitschel said.

All of it done at the same cost Houston used to pay for recycling just two years ago, not even counting the savings from trucks driving just one route. It's millions less that what the city is poised to pay under a proposed new recycling contract.

Gitschel's One Bin concept won the request for proposals in 2013 and the city spent three years trying to negotiate a contract with Gitschel's company to implement the idea. If it had gone through, Gitschel said it could be up and running - and maybe even expanded by now.

"This whole plant would be built and operating with thousands of people working here," Gitschel said.

Ted Oberg and George Gitschel walk through what would've been the Eco-Hub facility.

In November of last year, after the city spent all but $7,000 of the million dollar grant, the city walked away from negotiations. That ended Houston's chance to change the face of garbage, Gitschel said.

"It's extremely frustrating," Gitschell said. "Extremely. It doesn't have to be that way."

Finding Answers

When ABC13 Investigates started asking questions, the city gave us all sorts of explanations for why the project died: no proof it will work, no guarantees it can support itself, questions over financial irregularities -- all reasonable, but no one from the city was willing to explain any of them, none of those concerns are included in the most recent city documents we reviewed, and it's still unclear why Mayor Turner dropped it.

"One Bin did not start with me," Turner said. "One Bin started with the previous administrations. We are under new management now. I am under no obligation to carry forth something that started with the previous administration."

VIDEO: Mayor Slyvester Turner is asked about why the One Bin plan suddenly ended.

In its final grant report right before Turner took over, the city described the One Bin proposals as "viable" but subject to "additional due diligence & financial review." Memos show One Bin work continued once Turner took over.

Seven days into Turner's term, high-level mayoral aide Andy Icken told Mayor Turner in a memo the "contract is nearly complete," recommending, "the city finalize the contract."

Nine months into his term, Mayor Turner signed a letter supporting a recycling research project.

In the letter, the mayor claims was "in the process of finalizing" a program that sounded eerily similar to One Bin.

"That is an absolute misstatement, pure and simple," Turner said.

Turner faces questions about the memo he signed, showing support for the One Bin plan.

That letter, which you can read in its entirety below, clearly shows the wording and the mayor's signature.

The city's solid waste director Harry Hayes could tell ABC13 Investigates why the deal died, but he's not talking. Hayes walked into a private area of City Hall when we caught up to him without answering any of our questions.

The mayor's current chief of staff, Marvalette Hunter, is similarly quiet. In an email, she told us she has "no information" about the One Bin project. That's surprising since Gitschel claims he was in at least four meetings with her, close associates of Mayor Turner or high-level city staffers and also signed a contract lobbying for it before becoming chief of staff.

She was never paid on the contract or registered with the city as a lobbyist.

"Were you aware your chief of staff was a lobbyist for this organization?" we asked the mayor.

"I do not appreciate you throwing these lobs out to make something happen," Turner replied.

Bloomberg's million dollar grant is all but gone. One Bin still hopes to one day work in Houston or in cities around the nation.

Do you have a story tip, idea or question for Ted Oberg Investigates? Let us know, at