09/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

San Francisco Donates 276 Recycling Bins To Houston

At the end of July I read an article in the New York Times stating that Houston was the worst recycling city in the country, with a recycling rate of just 2.6% of its total waste. (San Francisco, where I live, is the best recycling city in the country, recycling 69% of our total waste. I don't think there's anything wrong with taking pride in that.) It was a particularly well written and interesting piece about culture, sprawl, and the difficulty of getting people to change old habits. And there was one thing that really stood out, though it was only mentioned very briefly: Houston doesn't have enough recycling bins.

"That's ridiculous," I was told. But it turned out to be true. In areas of Houston with recycling programs there is up to a ten year wait for an 18 gallon bin. There are 25,000 people in Houston on the list. These are people who already believe recycling is a good idea, living in an area with a recycling program, but they're not recycling because the city hasn't given them a bin. Apparently there was an idea floating around about taking bins from people that aren't really using them and giving them to people who are waiting. But it's not even worth the administrative expense of reclaiming underused bins. The bins only cost $6.25.

So we decided to donate recycling bins to Houston. Every month during election years I host the Progressive Reading Series. Five authors read from their work along with a comedian and a brief musical act. The money we raise usually goes to progressive congressional candidates, like Tom Perriello in Virginia, or a local cause like saving rent control. This month we decided to use the money to support Houston's recycling efforts. What could be a better use of progressive dollars than enabling someone who wants to recycle? For only $6.25 we could give a family the ability to recycle for years.

There was some back and forth with the City of Houston. At first my calls got lost in the beauracracy but eventually I got through. It was new ground because no one had offered to donate bins before. Finally I got on speaker phone with someone from waste management and an attorney from the Mayor's office. I had to assure them that accepting the bins didn't constitute endorsing a candidate and they sent me paperwork to sign stating as much. And eventually I got this letter from the mayor.

Almost 200 people showed up for the event, headlined by Jonathan Franzen, and also featuring Davy Rothbart of Found magazine, April Sinclair, Tom Barbash, and Matthew Eck a soldier who served in Somalia and went on to write the modern war classic The Farther Shore. There were so many people half the audience had to stand or sit on the floor. We took in $1729 at the door, enough for 276 recycling bins (check's in the mail on Monday, I swear). Everybody was excited to be helping Houston recycle. We referred to Houston as our sister city.

Exxon, based in Houston, is the most profitable company in the world, clearing almost sixteen billion dollars last quarter. Like most oil companies they are repositioning themselves as environmentally friendly. It would cost Exxon around $160,000 to clear Houston's recycling bin waitlist. Exxon makes that much profit every minute. I'm sure they wouldn't hesitate to help their local recycling program if the right person asked. Then it would be Houston helping Houston, instead of San Francisco helping Houston, though we're grateful for the opportunity.

Of course, there's more to be done. Cities across America are going to have to invest many millions to really make a dent in some of our environmental issues. But that shouldn't stop us from doing what we can in the meantime, especially when the price is so low. If you want to help Houston recycle, send $6.25 for every bin, checks made out to the City of Houston, P.O. Box 1562, Houston, TX 77251, accompanied with a letter stating the purpose of the donation. Include a note saying you're donating money for recycling bins and are not affiliated with any candidate. Houston and San Francisco might be almost 2,000 miles apart, but we love the same planet.

Stephen Elliott