Block Leader Profile: Dena Houston

Oct 24, 2017 - 1:22 pm

Block Leader Profile: Dena Houston main banner

Our Block Leader profile this month fits the mold for Zero Waste champ. Some know her as the 'Recycling Queen', others as 'Greek folk dance master' but her friends just call her 'Dena'.

We sat down with Dena to learn a thing or two about reducing, reusing and recycling!

How did you first learn about recycling and reusing?

I was born just after World War II and my parents grew up during the Depression. I also grew up without much money...I guess it was always an unconscious part of our way of life. For us, everything was some form of reuse. We never used one-time only items such as aluminum foils. We even boiled the bones of a turkey to make soup. We just didn't throw things away if we could use them in some way.

Why did you decide to become a zero waste Block Leader?

Before curbside recycling collection in Austin, I began a neighborhood project in Highland Park to collect paper and take it to the local private recycling center to sell. The project was called “Lettuce Recycle”. The plan was that once a month, one neighbor would take all the paper we had collected down to the paper recycling company to sell. We were all so excited! We planned to take all the money collected and have a BIG neighborhood party.

Photo of Dena HoustonI was the first to make the trip. We filled my Toyota with paper and I happily drove to the plant to collect our wealth…and save the planet! After unloading my paper-filled van, I was handed $1.30. Well, at least we did our best to save the planet! With single stream curbside recycling collection, we have come a long way!

About 10 years ago, I contacted ARR and asked if I could help educate my neighborhood about recycling. There was no official program at the time, so I just called myself a “recycling block captain”. Imagine my delight when Jennifer Denton contacted me a little over a year ago saying she wanted to create an official Block Leader Program. We met for coffee and brainstormed about how to get this program going. We chatted about training and doing as much electronically as possible. She made it happen and the rest, as they say, is history. I am now an official Zero Waste Block Leader and very grateful to Jennifer.

What are some ways you introduce Zero Waste to your neighbors?

I keep a neighborhood e-mail list, which I use to send information about recycling to people who live in my immediate neighborhood. For the last year and a half, I have written a monthly column for the Highland Park Neighborhood Association newsletter about recycling called “Lettuce Recycle”, distributed to 1,800 families. I share all kinds of recycling information and readers can e-mail me questions that I answer in the following month’s column. I also have a blog by the same name that has attracted several thousand followers.

picture of "Lettuce Recycle" newsletter
Which do you prefer more- recycling, composting or reuse?

Reuse! If someone else can use something I no longer need, it makes me so happy! I love when people come by before bulk item pickup in our neighborhood. It’s the best unofficial reuse program in the City.

What are some challenges you face with trying to live a Zero Waste lifestyle and how do you overcome them?

Keeping all the options straight. Figuring out what goes into the compost bin out in the backyard, in my new green cart, what can and cannot go into the recycling cart, what can go to Simple Recycling, and what goes to the Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center (RRDOC), takes some planning. The challenge is finding a place for each of these things to be collected and stored I have a collection bag the plastic that goes into the plastic collection bin at the grocery store, a box for Styrofoam, batteries, and light bulbs that go to the RRDOC, a small can under my kitchen sink for recyclables that go into my blue cart, a compost collection bin with compostable bag to keep what goes into the new green cart and a paper bag to collect Kleenex and paper towels to go into the green cart.

How have you made the Zero Waste lifestyle easier to follow in your home, for your family, or with your neighbors?

I try to encourage and educate my friends, family and neighbors about the what’s, how’s and why’s to using all that is available to keep things from going into the landfill. My friends call me the 'Recycling Queen'. They know I have done my research over the years about how and why things are recycled, and if I don’t know the answer to their questions, I can ask my contacts at ARR.

What part of your home do you get the most recyclables from?Photo of Dena looking at recyclables under the kitchen sink

Paper from the study and bottles and cans from the kitchen plus kitchen waste for our new green composting cart.

What do you do with non-recyclable material?

I first try to determine if it is really non-recyclable. If there is no way to recycle, or reuse it, I end up sending it to the landfill. An example would be the air filters from my AC/Heating unit. There are so many places in Austin to reuse things or send them to be reused, that there aren’t a lot of things that have to go to the landfill, but there are some.

What do you think is the best way to reduce the materials we use in our daily lives?

My husband and I have greatly reduced the junk mail we receive by using “opt-out” and personally contacting the companies who send us the tons of advertising catalogues and materials. It sometimes seems like a difficult task but over the last year, our junk mail has been greatly reduced.

What do you look forward to the most this coming year?

We have many, many wonderful ways to reuse and recycle in Austin. My dream is to educate as many people as I can about reducing, reusing and recycling!

Split photos of Dena looking over bins and placing items into green curbside cart

Any recycling advice or tips you would like to share?

When the City does Bulk Item Pickup, the materials collected are not recycled, but instead go directly to the landfill. My advice is to carefully consider if what is left for bulk pickup can be reused or recycled before leaving it for the landfill.

I get many questions about what to do with different plastics—for example, bubble wrap. In good condition, it can be reused as pack mail. Otherwise, it can go into the plastic recycling bins at most grocery stores. The plastic bags from cereal and cracker boxes can also be recycled here!

For some, recycling can seem like a chore. People who live in small apartments, for example, may not have the room to sort and store recyclables. We all face many challenges contributing to the City’s Zero Waste goal but we can overcome them by communicating and sharing solutions!

Recycling and reusing options can seem very, very confusing. I encourage all Austinites to contact ARR if they have any questions.