City forms 30-year plan to get Austin to ‘zero waste’

Community Impact
Bobby Longoria

The City of Austin will soon implement a complex overhaul of its waste plan that includes a large recycling initiative, a new composting method and waste reduction efforts that would reduce costs for those who produce less waste.austin-chart13-info

Under Austin Resource Recovery’s master plan, the city hopes to have 95 percent of its waste diverted away from landfills and back into everyday use by 2040. Austin Resource Recovery was formerly named the Solid Waste Services Department.

“It’s a different way of looking at our waste streams—it’s material that should have a second life and not be thrown away, because there is added value in it,” said Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery.

Meeting zero-waste goals

Austin Resource Recovery’s master plan has set waste diversion benchmarks every five years, beginning with 35 percent diversion in 2010, 50 percent diversion in 2015 and ultimately 95 percent diversion in 2040. The plan’s goals were presented to the Austin City Council on Nov. 10. As of press time, Council was scheduled to adopt the plan Dec. 15.

To achieve the benchmarked zero-waste goals, several new initiatives must be introduced, including more recycling and reuse centers and new composting carts for residents that would become available in 2015. Composting carts would be used for organic materials including food scraps and other materials that may rot or produce methane gas.

Both efforts would require an increase in fees to cover the cost of maintaining and building new centers and introducing a new fleet of compost collectors. Customer waste carts would carry varying fees, which Gedert said encourages waste reduction and could eventually save customers money.

Now, about 60 percent of Austin Resource Recovery customers use a 64-gallon trash cart and 30 percent use a 96-gallon cart. The remaining 10 percent use either 32-gallon cart or the 21-gallon trash cart, which was introduced in October, Gedert said.

Forming a zero-waste plan

Austin hired waste consultant Gary Liss in 2007 to form its 2008 zero-waste strategic plan. The city rehired him to help develop the Austin Resource Recovery’s master plan, which serves as an implementation strategy to accomplish Austin’s zero-waste goal.

According to Liss, Austin was the first city in the country to have a major curbside recycling program in the late 1980s. Austin stayed ahead of the curve by implementing an ordinance that required businesses to recycle, but by 2005, those methods had become main stream.

Austin overlooked several important concepts however, including food-scrap processing and the management of construction and demolition debris, Liss said. The recycling ordinance only applied to businesses with more than 100 employees, limiting its scope. Green building standards were applied in Austin except in the Central Business District, another necessary fix.

By adjusting local, regional and state landfill fees and surcharges, Liss said the zero-waste plan helped the private sector reduce waste and find ways to make existing products more recyclable.

Public education

Convincing residents to reduce their waste will require some education, said Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“You need to make it as convenient and painless for folks and make the case as to why it is important,” Schneider said. “Most people want to do their part.”

Gedert estimates that 50 percent of household waste is recyclable, 40 percent is compostable and 10 percent is hazardous or nonrecyclable. Taking on this initiative will help promote a greener attitude among residents, he said.

“Going above and beyond shows leadership,” Gedert said. “Being green and promoting a reusable, recyclable society is a high value within our residents. We are reflecting the voice of the community as we develop this zero-waste plan.”

Austin Resource Recovery will conduct a waste characterization study in the next year that will focus on material that is generated at the household level in order to refine the estimation.