Austin’s plans for citywide composting program take shape

Austin American-Statesman
By Elizabeth Findell

Carrol Seale is a believer in Austin composting. That doesn’t mean doing it was always easy. She tried to make up games to help her kids, ages 13 and 9, remember which scraps went where: recycling, composting or trash. The city-provided compost bin was too big to fit in her kitchen, so Seale purchased a smaller one from the Container Store, with a tight lid to ward off the fruit flies that would buzz when someone forgot to seal it.

Into the compost bin goes organic materials, including uneaten food, yard trimmings and old pizza boxes. The family’s commitment to regularly sorting its organic waste from regular trash “goes in cycles,” Seale said. But building the habit through a city pilot program has made Seale support expanding composting citywide.

Whether to commit to that, with the costs and resident fees associated with it, is up for debate at City Hall as budget talks amp up for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Andrew Dobbs, area program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, checks out a banner by compost supporters in front of Austin City Hall – Photo by Al Braden

City staffers have suggested phasing in curbside collection of composting materials from all Austin households over a period of five years. The first year would cost $4.2 million and add $1 to monthly utility bills. The fees would incrementally increase to reach $5.40 per month in the fifth year. The city would have to buy new trucks and add 55 employees, for a cost of $23.2 million after five years.

Advocates say composting is the necessary next step toward the city’s “Zero Waste” goal, which aims to reduce trash sent to landfills and incinerators 90 percent by 2040. Austin is behind in its goals to divert landfill waste.

It could save the cost down the road of building new landfills, advocates say. The city has estimated 46 percent of Austin waste is compostable.

Others caution that $5.40 per month is a substantial fee for some Austin families, particularly for a program that residents might find tough to commit to.

The pilot program, which began in 2013, phased in compost pickup to 14,000 homes in 10 pockets of the city. It provides a separate bin for food scraps, paper items, yard waste, hair, lint and small wooden items. Pickup is weekly. City staff estimated nearly two-thirds of those homes leave something organic at the curb on any given week.

In a budget workshop discussion on the program Wednesday, staffers mentioned options of rolling out citywide composting as quickly as three years or as slowly as seven years, which would speed up or delay the costs.

Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Delia Garza, Leslie Pool and Kathie Tovo expressed support for moving forward on composting. Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Sheri Gallo expressed some hesitation at the cost and asked whether residents could be allowed to opt-in or opt-out if they wanted.

“We’re looking at a balance of not pricing our community out of our community and doing what’s best for the environment,” Gallo said.

Staffers cautioned against allowing residents to opt out. Doing so would make it much more expensive for those who did choose to participate, as trucks would still have to travel the same routes for pickup, said Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery.

Garza said $5.40 per month was a small part of the average person’s budget and should be weighed against the benefits of reducing waste.

“If we don’t implement policies like these and instead seek to just have a blanket ‘We want Austin to be affordable for everybody,’ if that’s an Austin that has 10 dumps in my district and three more gas plants … we have to rethink,” she said.

Other proponents of the program have noted that if residents start putting more waste in the compost bin, they might be able to reduce the size of their trash cart to lower their overall cost that way.

Gedert said he considered the council’s reaction promising. The council will decide during future budget discussions whether to approve expenditures for the program.

In fourth-largest city in America, an 8-year-old steps up to recycle city’s glass

Photo by Houston PressHouston Press
by Meagan Flynn
Original story here

They were halfway down the block when David Krohn’s 1977 Jeep Wagoneer, full of makeshift recycling bins and a few stray glass bottles, blew a gasket.

“Did someone shoot at our wheels?” asked eight-year-old Tristan Berlanga, the younger brother of Krohn’s girlfriend and the mastermind of this entrepreneurial endeavor.

Krohn drove the Jeep a little farther, slower, crossing his fingers that the gunshot noises coming from his exhaust would stop — because this was not the time for his car to crap out on him. He and Tristan had just set out to pick up glass from a half dozen Houston households and deliver those families their own glass-recycling bins, a trip that’s part of their new initiative, Hauling Glass.

Since the city cut glass from its recycling repertoire last March, he and Tristan and a few of Krohn’s buddies have been doing the city’s job for it: going door to door to toss several pounds of beer bottles and Topo Chico bottles into the bed of trucks or Krohn’s Jeep, then delivering all of it to a warehouse Tristan’s dad owns, where they can store all the glass recyclables no longer allowed in your green Waste Management bins. They ultimately hand it over to Strategic Materials, the largest glass processor in North America, ironically headquartered in a city that no longer offers curbside glass recycling.

And it was all Tristan’s idea, Krohn says.

“I didn’t want people to go all the way to the [large Waste Management] recycling bins,” Tristan says, while Krohn checks out the engine. “So I thought I could just take it from them instead.” His favorite part of the job, he adds, is “making people happy.”

Yeah, that’s right, leave it to an eight-year-old in the fourth-largest city in America to make collecting roughly one-fifth of the city’s recycling tonnage his responsibility, as though 2016 Houston is the setting of a bleak Victorian-era Dickensian novel.

The city cut glass recycling from curbside pickup in March, saying the alternative was cutting recycling altogether. A contract with Waste Management was set to expire March 16, and because the city was (and is) in the middle of handling a budget crisis, Mayor Sylvester Turner rejected two contract renewal offers from Waste Management because he said they were too expensive. With the March 16 deadline approaching and no contract on the table, the possibility that recycling might evaporate completely became all too real.

At the last minute, though, Turner struck a deal with Waste Management that he called a “win-win” for them both: a two-year, $2.7 million-a-year contract, but one that excluded glass, the most expensive item for Waste Management to process. At a press conference, Waste Management TexOma Area Vice President Don Smith said much of the glass can break during collection, and can rip up WM’s machinery. He said it had “negative value.”

Still, according to the city’s solid waste department, the city recycles about 5,400 tons of material a month, roughly 18 percent of which used to be glass. That’s 2 million pounds of glass per month that will now end up in a landfill, unless you haul it yourself to one of Waste Management’s large bins or sign up and pay $10 a month for Hauling Glass’s service.

Melanie Scruggs with Texas Campaign for the Environment said that, although it was good that the city was able to salvage most of its recycling program, the elimination of glass is “hugely disappointing” in a city as big as Houston. She said that, for some time, Houston has failed to develop a long-term recycling strategy, such as the “zero waste” initiative that Los Angeles and New York and Dallas have all successfully put in place, encouraging people to recycle 90 percent of their waste. Houston’s failure to hop on board, Scruggs said, is mostly due to the fact that all through former mayor Annise Parker’s tenure, the only recycling plan the administration focused on was the “one bin for all” proposal, which Scruggs called “unrealistic” and worse for recycling, since combining trash and recyclables into one container can often contaminate those recyclables and completely devalue them. Which brings us to eight-year-old Tristan and three twentysomethings picking up the city’s glass.

“We’ve just not had the political will to move us in the right direction,” Scruggs said, adding, “We shouldn’t have to rely on people with disposable income they’re willing to spend on [Hauling Glass]. Recycling glass should be available to everyone.”

In just a few short weeks, Hauling Glass has gained more than 200 customers spread across three ZIP codes, and Krohn says, “The name of the game was to just make it as easy of a transition as possible for people.” Even the week of Houston’s apocalyptic flood, Hauling Glass was still up and running; it was the week of the company’s first big pickup. Krohn or his friends will pick up glass from roughly 85 houses at a time.

After his girlfriend Googled possible problems with Krohn’s Jeep, he got back in the car believing he’d successfully repaired the fuel filter. He took the car several more blocks and crossed Washington Street, on the way to his route — only for the Jeep to slow to a crawl.

“I think this is a good metaphor for how this glass recycling company has been running,” Krohn said. “Just kind of making it up as we go and figuring out how to get it done.”

He and Tristan crawled on back to Krohn’s house and parked the Jeep in back. They clinked Topo Chicos and Krohn made some phone calls, looking for a way, and a truck, to finish the last six houses of the night.

Enforcing Texas’ oil & gas laws

TCE Blog
Andrew Dobbs, Legislative Director


The Texas Railroad Commission has nothing to do with trains—it’s the state agency that is supposed to regulate the oil and gas industry in Texas. This makes it one of the most important agencies there is, and right now they are undergoing an important review. Next year our state lawmakers could be voting on major changes to the agency. Because of the out-sized pollution impacts from oil and gas operations throughout Texas, this is a crucial opportunity to protect our environment and public health and safety for all residents.

State officials from the Texas Sunset Commission are currently undertaking this comprehensive review process, and they just released a report on the important changes that are needed at the Railroad Commission. What they found was disturbing. In their own words, the Railroad Commission:

Has a “lack of strategic approach to enforcement and inability to provide basic performance information.”

“Cannot demonstrate the effectiveness of its oil and natural gas enforcement program.”“Struggles to report reliable data.”

“Does not, and seemingly cannot, report the complete number of oil and gas violations cited by Railroad Commission staff last year.”

“Cannot guarantee that major violations (such as ‘a large spill that contaminates freshwater’) are being appropriately addressed.”

“Does not specifically track repeat violations.”

“Failed to deter operators from repeatedly violating regulations that could result in groundwater contamination.”

These aren’t quotes from us here at Texas Campaign for the Environment or from another environmental group—this is a state oversight agency telling us that our way of enforcing oil and gas laws in Texas is broken. Read the whole report here.


At the heart of this problem is the way that the Railroad Commission enforces the law. This agency bends over backwards to avoid issuing penalties. Instead, they will forego any fines or other discipline as long as the lawbreaker complies after they are caught. The report found that current enforcement policy has the “unintended effect that operators will simply wait to be told to comply with regulations.” Bad actors know they can break the law freely until an inspector comes—keep in mind that over 65% of oil and gas leases have gone more than 2 years without an inspection.

And because the agency doesn’t keep track of repeat offenders, those bad operators can start breaking the law again as soon as the inspector leaves. If another inspector shows up months or years later and find the same exact violations, the company still won’t be fined—they can play the same “we will now start obeying the law” game over and over again. As the report says, “the Railroad Commission cannot be certain that operators are not committing repeated violations.”


Finally, as if all of this weren’t bad enough, the one threat the state agency really does have—a “lease severance” which forbids a lawbreaking operator from producing any oil and gas—“may be an empty threat” according to this report. Last year nearly 20% of the operators barred from producing oil and gas were caught doing it anyway, and the only way the state agency ever catches them is if they turn themselves in.

The solution is a simple, commonsense idea that state lawmakers of all political stripes should be able to support. The Texas Railroad Commission needs to get serious about enforcing the law, tracking their performance, and making violation and penalty information available to the public and our elected officials. The report makes an important recommendation: Make the Railroad Commission develop a public, annual strategic plan that tracks and measures the effectiveness of monitoring and enforcement.

Enforcing existing state laws designed to protect our air, water and land shouldn’t be a controversial issue. Better enforcement could improve other areas such as our chronic smog problem in D/FW—much of our regional ozone pollution can be traced to oil and gas emissions. It could even affect the growing number of earthquakes caused by the oil and gas industry, because if state officials want to put rules in place to prevent this damaging seismic activity, they’ll be utterly useless without proper enforcement.

Sadly, oil and gas industry lobbyists have convinced many of our state lawmakers that nothing needs to change at the Railroad Commission. (It should come as no surprise that oil and gas lobbyists are among the most powerful in the state.) But many other elected officials, community leaders and local groups know that the Texas Railroad Commission needs a better strategy for living up to its obligations.

We’re working to organize broad support and convince state officials to do what’s right and take Texas law seriously. Yes, this can be done if enough people get involved now. You can take action today!


Andrew Dobbs
Legislative Director