Will Austin’s green self-image be realized in its “zero waste” goals?

Austin Chronicle PhotoRobyn Ross
Austin Chronicle
Original article here

As the crow flies, it’s about 10 miles from the Capitol to the Texas Disposal Systems landfill, where Austin’s city-collected residential trash goes to be forever entombed. From a vantage point near the peak of the 85-foot-tall hill, the Downtown skyline rises in blue-gray peaks on the horizon. If it weren’t for the noise of the compactors squeezing the trash into the earth, you could imagine blissfully watching the sunset here.

Trash generation isn’t a category in which Austin wants to be at the top of the heap, and over the past decade the city has adopted ambitious goals to reduce the waste it generates. In fact, “waste” as a concept is a bit passé: The city officially views the leftover stuff you put in your garbage can as “resources” that could be repaired, reused, recycled, or composted instead of landfilled. The Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan, adopted in December 2011, established the goal of achieving “zero waste” by 2040, meaning the city will divert the materials that would have gone to the landfill to other, more environmentally friendly ends.

“The descriptor is ‘zero waste, or pretty darn close,'” says Rick Cofer, chair of the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, “and generally that’s meant to be a 95 percent reducing of waste that’s sent to landfills. It’s a philosophy that the leftover material from commerce and life has an economic value as a commodity, and that by treating it as a resource you can get more value out of it. It’s green environmentally, but it can also be economical.”

Austin introduced single-stream recycling in 2008, and the diversion rate increased from 30% to about 36%. Under the leadership of director Bob Gedert, hired in February 2010, the department has even changed its name from Solid Waste Services to Resource Recovery to reflect the new perspective.

But since the (literal) rollout of the single-stream blue carts, progress has stalled. A series of benchmark goals along the way to 2040 call for incremental increases in diversion, or the percentage of waste kept out of landfills. The target for 2015 is a 50% diversion. But since the post-single-stream jump to 36%, Austin’s diversion rate has increased by only four percentage points.

“We call ourselves a green city,” Gedert says, “but only 72 percent of residents are recycling, and only 60 percent of recyclables are actually getting in the bins.” Changing the numbers to match Austin’s self-image requires a shift away from the very idea of “trash” to seeing discarded items as “materials.” It demands that residents and businesses see both an environmental and a financial value in those materials. Without such a change, the city is literally throwing money away.

Whatcha Gonna Do With All That Junk?

The “working face” is the area of a landfill where trash is being dumped. TDS’ landfill southeast of Austin, near Creedmoor, takes in 2,500 to 3,000 tons of waste each day from Austin and 90 other communities. Waste Management, the city’s other working landfill, processes 1,200 tons a day. (A third landfill, run by Republic Services, will stop taking waste over the next year. The city’s municipal landfill on FM 812 closed when the nearby airport expanded.)

Even as trucks from Austin Resource Recovery and private hauling companies empty their loads into the working face, landfill compactors – front-end loaders with giant spiked wheels – roll over the pile, back up, and roll again. TDS’ business development specialist (and tour guide) Adam Gregory says the goal is to crush everything into a third its original volume. From 30 yards away, the working face exudes a faint sour-milk odor. The trash is a rainbow of color, but a few things stand out. Mattresses. Lots of plastic water bottles.

“You can walk around in there and find things that should have never been put in a trash can, that should have been recycled,” Gregory says. “But what needs to happen is for folks to do the sorting before things get here. It’s just not economically feasible for us to take every single truck and do a sorting process on it. What’s really going to have an effect on diversion is the individual mindset of the consumers.”

Every waste-reduction effort by consumers cuts down on the tonnage coming through TDS’ gates, and could theoretically reduce the company’s earnings from gate fees. But diversion and waste reduction also extend the life of the landfill, just as compacting the trash does. At the current rate of waste generation, TDS has about 30 years of capacity, Gregory says, but “if we can fundamentally change how much is being produced, combined with an expansion of our landfill and technology advancing to where we can divert certain streams that weren’t able to be diverted before, we’ll have over 100 years left.” James “Bubba” Smith, Waste Manage­ment’s senior district manager for Central Texas landfills, says his company’s facility has 15 years left. “I encourage recycling because the longer this landfill will be here, the longer Bubba will have a job,” he quips.

The city’s 72%-of-residents-recycling figure comes from a 2012 survey conducted by Resource Recovery pickup crews and route supervisors in 20 neighborhoods, and it represents the number of single-family homes setting out the blue recycling cart on their designated pickup day. “We think there’s a certain part of the population that hasn’t endorsed recycling, so we need to tug them in,” Gedert says. The department is working on a follow-up survey that will break the numbers down on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level and try to identify the barriers to recycling.

The conclusion that only 60% of household recyclables are getting into the bins is based on comparing Austin’s pounds-per-household with general EPA guidelines. Gedert’s hypothesis is that since most people collect their recycling in the kitchen, items from other parts of the house – shampoo bottles in the bathroom, newspapers in the den – often don’t make it into the bin. The city is conducting another study to determine exactly what recyclable materials are “leaking” into the landfill.

As sobering as these numbers are, they’re only part of the story: one-quarter, to be exact. Resource Recovery collects trash and recycling from roughly 186,000 single-family homes and fewer than 3,000 commercial customers, which together generate about a quarter of the material hauled to area landfills. (The city sends about 477 tons to the TDS landfill daily.) The rest is collected by 57 private companies that haul commercial waste. These businesses – Central Texas Refuse, Progressive Waste Solutions, Waste Management – haul waste and recycling from properties like retail stores, restaurants, industrial facilities, and hospitals. Haulers distinguish between “residential” and “commercial” properties based on the container they use: Rolling carts are residential; Dumpsters are commercial. Because multifamily residences (anything larger than a three-plex) use Dumpsters for waste collection, they’re categorized with commercial properties.

Commercial and multifamily properties are regulated by the Universal Recycling Ordinance, a city rule that takes effect in stages. Beginning with the largest properties in 2012, the URO phases in smaller properties each October until 2017, when every establishment in the city will be required to offer recycling. This year’s regulations included commercial properties larger than 50,000 square feet and multifamily properties with more than 25 units. Affected businesses are required to provide conveniently located, clearly labeled recycling facilities for paper, plastic, aluminum, glass, and cardboard (or approved substitute materials), and to provide bilingual recycling education for their tenants and employees.

At a recent URO lunch-and-learn at the County Line on the Lake restaurant, members of ARR’s business outreach team explained the requirements to roughly 35 property managers and business owners who ate barbecue and drank from plastic cups that a server promised would be recycled. Attendees’ questions suggested that while ARR had mailed notifications to property owners and some tenants, not all commercial property managers were aware of the requirements.

Tisha Shipman, a property manager for several multifamily residences primarily in the UT area, said she and her boss hadn’t realized her company’s three apartment complexes that have more than 25 units were already affected by the URO. “We are definitely having to get a jump on this and implement it to make sure we’re in compliance,” she said, noting that her first step would be to call the company’s hauler and inquire about rates for recycling. Tenants at some residences had already requested recycling and set out bins, she said, but it was unclear where the maintenance staff had taken the contents.

What Goes Around Comes Around

When materials do make it into the recycling container, they’re hauled to a “materials recovery facility,” or MRF (pronounced “merf”). The city’s recycling trucks take recycling from customers south of the river to the TDS MRF in Creedmoor, adjacent to its landfill, and materials from those on the north side to Balcones Resources, south of Highway 290 on Johnny Morris Road.

At the MRFs, materials such as paper, plastic, and metals are separated and baled for shipping elsewhere, often overseas, for remanufacture. At TDS the MRF separates loads of recycling into their various material components via a system of overlapping conveyor belts reminiscent of an M.C. Escher drawing. A combination of hand sorting and mechanical screening systems divides cardboard from plastic from metal from nonrecyclables. “We get everything including the kitchen sink,” Gregory says. “Small motors and brake drums, leather purses.”

Austin generates far more glass than cities of comparable size, likely a reflection of its collegiate drinking culture. Glass is actually a headache for recycling facilities, because the market for it is poor, because it’s heavy to transport, and because broken glass essentially sandblasts the equipment. Plastic is much easier to recycle.

The sorted materials are compressed into giant bales – 35,000 crushed aluminum cans form a glittering half-ton cube – and sold when commodity prices are right. But Gregory says TDS would prefer to process and remanufacture the materials on-site, as the company will eventually do at an eco-industrial park next door. (The city announced plans for its own eco-industrial park earlier this year, to be located at its closed FM 812 landfill; see “City Plans ‘[re]Manufacture’ for Landfill,” Aug. 8.)

It’s economical – for businesses, cities, and households – to recycle. “We write checks to customers within our company that total between $800,000 and a million dollars a month,” says Kerry Getter, CEO of Balcones Resources, which contracts with not just the city, but also with UT, the State Capitol complex, 3M, and other commercial entities. The company charges businesses to haul their recyclables away, but it buys their materials. Often the hauling charge is eclipsed by the share of the material sales returned to the business.

On the city level, “recycling is cheaper than trash, and we get better rates on recycling with a higher volume,” Gedert says. The city negotiates contracts with TDS and Balcones for the fees it pays to process its materials (about 213 tons per day) through the MRFs, as well as a revenue-sharing agreement for the money those materials bring when sold. Prices depend on overseas commodity markets, but the greater volume and purity (meaning containers are clean), the better the price. Depending on the market, Austin sometimes owes the MRFs money, and sometimes it gets money back.

The city pays $21 per ton to add trash to the TDS landfill and between $75 and $90 to process recyclables, but in September its net bill for recycling processing was only about 30% of those charges because of the money it gets back through revenue sharing. “The more tonnage we divert, the less we pay for landfilling,” Gedert says. “For every dollar I save, I’ve got a dollar to invest in recycling equipment.”

Even at the household level, becoming a more diligent recycler can save money. The city offers one size of recycling cart (96 gallons) but four different trash carts ranging from 24 gallons for $15.20 per month to 96 gallons at $40.15 per month. Putting more recyclables in the blue bin can let a residence downsize trash carts and save money.

Throwing Away Money

If recycling is green in more than one way, why don’t more people do it? Gedert’s hypothesis – that residential recyclers just get lazy when they get farther from the bin – will be tested by ARR’s upcoming waste composition studies. In addition to education, zero-waste leaders such as San Francisco levy fines for not recycling or contaminating recycling with trash, a strategy both Cofer and Andrew Dobbs of Texas Campaign for the Environment say would help in Austin.

On the business side, lack of compliance with the URO may result from a lack of awareness (as in the case of some at the County Line lunch) or from the perception that the potential $2,000 per day penalty for violations isn’t being enforced. “Sometimes the city wants to do more carrot-over-stick actions, but businesses really understand it when you’re hitting them in the pocket,” says Stacy Guidry, chair of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, a watchdog and advocacy group.

Tenants and employees can’t recycle if they don’t know they’re supposed to. One requirement of the URO is education for tenants and staff, within 30 days of hire or move-in. It can take the form of mailers, emails, presentations at neighborhood and homeowners’ association meetings, and training for janitorial staff.

The city’s business outreach team works to bring companies into compliance, which includes providing some of this education. Their efforts are supplemented by contractors like Albert Castro, a public involvement coordinator with Concept Development & Planning, who recently went door-to-door at Foundation Communities’ Sierra Ridge Apartments in South Austin. Castro and colleagues spoke with residents – primarily in Spanish – about recycling protocols, and distributed small recycling bins that fit under the apartments’ sinks.

“We found that this kind of outreach really does work: going door-to-door, talking to people, doing demonstrations, and showing them one-on-one,” he said. “It’s nice to go explain to them that they don’t have to go out of their way” to recycle. Last fall, efforts by Foundation Communities and Resource Recovery staff at the nonprofit’s Daffodil Apartments helped increase recycling so much that the complex added a second weekly recycling pickup.

TCE’s program director Dobbs and executive director Robin Schneider say that when educating the public, the city needs to hit more than one note about the benefits of recycling. Arguments about landfill space and climate change resonate with people who already identify as environmentalists, but equally strong arguments can be made about justice and economic development. “If you throw this stuff in the trash, you’re dumping it on somebody’s neighborhood,” Dobbs says, “and those somebodies tend to be people of color, low-income folks, and rural marginalized populations. But if we recycle this stuff we can give those same communities jobs and opportunity.”

Quantifying that data would go even further, Guidry suggests. “We need to find out, if we’re diverting an extra 1,200 tons from the landfill every year, how many jobs does that equate to? What is the average savings that businesses experience because they started complying with zero-waste policies? If I could see four graphs on my utility bill that say ‘businesses are diverting this, they’re creating this many jobs, this has been saved from the landfill, [they’ve reduced] greenhouse gas emissions [by this much]’ – that’s what people need to see to say, ‘That makes sense, that’s relatable to my life, and now I’m going to pitch in and help make those numbers stronger.'”

And, Gregory says, anyone in the industry will tell you that reaching kids is the most effective form of education, “because then they go home and ask their parents why they aren’t doing the recycling they do at school. No one’s better at shaming people into doing stuff than their kids.”

Austin’s Zero Waste History

The zero-waste movement in Austin began coalescing in late 2001, when TCE canvassers, then focused primarily on air pollution, went door-to-door in Northeast Austin and heard complaints about the nearby landfills. Shortly thereafter, says Schneider, the organization was approached by the Electronics TakeBack Coalition to join a campaign requiring manufacturers to be responsible for the end-of-life recycling of their products. Within a few months, TCE had shifted its focus from air pollution to waste and recycling.

In 2005 then-mayor Will Wynn signed Austin on to the U.N. Environmental Accords and a citizens group working with a consultant developed the Zero Waste Stra­tegic Plan adopted by the city in January 2009. Around the same time, environmental leaders like Schneider and Guidry formed the Austin Zero Waste Alliance and, later, the umbrella group Central Texas Zero Waste Alliance to make sure there was a plan for implementation and enforcement. Gedert was hired in 2010, with the strong support of AZWA, and in 2011 his Solid Waste Services department renamed itself Austin Resource Recovery.

Trash and recycling have been lifelong concerns for Gedert, who grew up in a family of eight and was responsible for taking the trash out to the curb. He remembers analyzing the family’s household trash for a sixth-grade science project. Later, in the Sixties and Seventies, he was a “Dumpster diver,” looking for recyclables in the trash. His job in Austin is essentially the same, albeit on a much bigger scale.

Austin is regarded as a zero-waste leader, at least in its Resource Recovery Master Plan, adopted in December 2011. Dallas followed in 2013, planning to divert 40% of waste by 2020 and “maximize diversion” by 2040. San Antonio passed a “pathways to zero waste” plan to recycle 60% of materials collected by the solid waste department by 2025. Out-of-state benchmark cities include Seattle, which plans to divert 70% of its waste by 2025, and San Francisco, which has a zero-waste-by-2020 goal and was diverting more than 75% of materials by 2010. However, the rules and the context are different in California, where state law requires communities to work toward a minimum of 50% diversion.

Accepting Responsibility

Gedert applauds Austin’s self-proclaimed green identity, because that community value results in funding for diversion and recycling operations. But Austin’s growth makes it difficult to keep up, especially when many people move here from cities without a zero-waste culture. “I’m trying to change the perception of the public that this is not waste – this is resources,” he says, “and every new resident moving in needs that education.”

Meanwhile, the framework for a construction and demolition recycling ordinance – for materials such as concrete, Sheetrock, and lumber – is being developed by the Zero Waste Advisory Commission with input from stakeholders in the industry. City Council will vote on the content of the future ordinance in December.

Phase 2 of the URO will require, by 2018, every business in Austin with a food service permit to divert organic material, which in many cases will mean contracting with a compost collector. The city is also determining how to handle organics generated by its residential customers. ARR is running a pilot curbside organics collection program with 14,000 residences and will deliver a report to Council by January.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in this town in a short amount of time,” says Cofer, the commission chair. “There are still some significant steps like the full implementation of the URO and a composting agenda, and a commitment to construction- and demolition-waste diversion, and ultimately making recycling a mandatory act like it is in a lot of large cities. Because we are all in this together, and this is a good example of a shared responsibility.”

Related: Significant Dates in Austin Zero Waste History