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One bin for all

Innovative recycling program is on fast track after Houston wins $1 million Bloomberg prize

Mayor Annise Parker, Mike Bloomberg
Mayor Annise Parker accepts Houston's award from New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Houston's One Bin for All idea was selected as one of five winners in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge and received a prize of $1 million. Green Houston Texas/Facebook

From hundreds of entries, Houston made it to the top 20 finalists for its submission to Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, "Total Reuse — One Bin For All." It's a simple idea that would revolutionize the way that we process trash, sorting everything from one garbage bin at a material resource recovery and renewable energy facility.

And now the final results are in: Though Mayor Annise Parker's "One Bin For All" strategy didn't earn the $5 million grand prize, it did score $1 million as one of four runners up.

The Houston entry also won the title of Fan Favorite and a $50,000 in-kind grant from IBM (thanks to more than 15,000 votes through the Huffington Post website).

"Fifty years after we really started thinking about recycling as a country, we still only recycle about 30 percent — even in a city that really focuses on it," Parker said during a press conference in New York on Wednesday morning.

 The "One Bin For All" approach would divert up to 75 percent of all waste to recycling. 

The "One Bin For All" approach would divert up to 75 percent of all waste to recycling. Technology for implementing this sort of program has been tried — but not on the scale that the City of Houston is prepared to do, Parker explained to CultureMap in a follow-up phone interview.

"Our goal is to find a private sector partner in this initiative," said Parker of her plan for funding the project without public investment.

That will be more doable given that solid waste corporations — several of which are headquartered within the city — have a vested interest in commoditizing the waste stream and revolutionizing the cycle, Parker said.

Parker called her implementation timetable "aggressive," with plans to put out a request for qualifications next month, negotiate with vendors over the summer, seek City Council approval by the end of 2013 and begin construction on the new facility next year.

If all goes well, Parker told CultureMap, the plan could be in operation within two years.

Selection criteria for the Bloomberg Philanthropies prizes included vision, ability to implement, potential for impact and potential for replicability in other cities. Providence, R.I., took the grand prize for an idea called "Providence Talks," which would provide low-income children with devices to record conversations and word exposure and equip their parents with coaching lessons to help close the word gap.

Other runners up include Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel's "The Chicago SmartData Platform" would track trends and identify problems before they're obvious; Philadelphia, where Mayor Michael Nutter's "Philadelphia Social Enterprise Partnership" would revolutionize the city government procurement process; and Santa Monica, where Mayor Pam O'Connor introduced "The Wellbeing Project" to measure citizen wellbeing in a way that would dictate policy and resources.

"I think all of them represent the kind of information we need to improve people's lives and move this country forward," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg of the winning projects.

Bloomberg's vision for the contest relied upon the belief that it's the cities — not the federal or state governments — that can find creative solutions to solve our day-to-day problems.

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