Austin’s recycling ordinance enters next phase; city works toward zero waste goal

Community Impact News

Is Austin’s goal of sustainability sustainable? The city aims to be zero-waste by 2040—meaning 90 percent of discarded materials will be either recycled or composted and not sent to landfills—yet 80 percent of the items at city landfills could have been recycled or composted, according to a 2015 study.

Though, business community members and environmental advocates alike seem to agree that Austin is making strides toward a target that seemed high to some at the time of its adoption in 2009—when the city became the first in Texas to adopt such a strategy.

The four-year phase-in of the city’s ordinance requiring commercial properties—including schools, medical facilities and businesses, in addition to apartments and condominiums—to provide recycling services is set to be complete Oct. 1.

Although Austin still has a long way to go to meet its zero-waste goal, the general manager of Austin’s largest processor of recyclables said the doubling of its workforce and continued investment in its far East Austin facility stand as evidence of the progress made.

“This is not an easy task we set ourselves at, and it’s one that I think we are as a company very much in partnership with the city on,” Balcones Resources General Manager Joaquin Mariel said.

When the last phase of the recycling ordinance rolls out Oct. 1, all multifamily and nonresidential commercial properties will be required to provide tenants and employees with convenient access to recycling services.

The municipal law, which has been implemented gradually since 2013, mandates that affected properties provide the following: sufficient recycling capacity; convenient access to recycling services; recycling services for such items as paper, plastics Nos. 1 and 2, aluminum, glass and cardboard; bilingual recycling education and informational container signs; and online submission of an annual diversion plan.


Is Austin’s goal of sustainability sustainable? The city aims to be zero-waste by 2040—meaning 90 percent of discarded materials will…

Single-family homes, where the ordinance does not apply, receive curbside recycling collection through the city.

Failure to abide by any of the five guidelines can result in a fine between $200 and $2,000 per deficiency, per day.

Business community

On the flip side, commercial properties are offered rebates and other incentives to invest in recycling and composting equipment.

Melissa Vogt heads the diversion efforts at The Vortex, a complex on Manor Road that comprises a stage-production theater, The Butterfly Bar and Italian food truck Patrizi’s.

The Vortex has been recycling since it was incorporated in 1988, Vogt said. Back then she said the theater company’s artistic director used to load up The Vortex’s recyclables and take them to the facility.

Now the burden on recycling enthusiasts has eased with recycling pickup available through the city’s contractors, such as Texas Disposal Services.

Last year The Vortex began discussing composting materials. The company ended up receiving $1,000 go to toward setting up that service.

The business switched from plastic to compostable straws at its bar, and Patrizi’s now uses all compostable items, including napkins and utensils.

The Vortex is not 100 percent zero-waste—the theater company uses some materials in the construction of its sets that cannot be composted or recycled.

“We definitely downsized what’s going in the landfill,” Vogt said.

Mariel said early recycling adopters can be found throughout the small-business community in Austin.

“Many of our local small businesses have been engaged in the recycling process,” he said. “Because they believe in that—it’s part of their business mission—and because they understood the [return on investment]a long time ago.

“When you reduce the amount of space you’ve dedicated to landfill [waste]and offset that with space dedicated to recycling there is … a financial balance that happens there.”

Understanding waste behaviors

The city’s zero-waste advocates are not the average Austinite, however, and staff members at the city’s department overseeing recycling services—Austin Resource Recovery—have been working with so-called innovation fellows to explore locals’ behaviors when it comes to material waste. The fellows are designers and developers hired to bring tech sector-style solutions to the public sector.

Ron Neumond, waste diversion planner with ARR, said the project was aimed at drilling into the “why” behind Austin’s numbers—why, for example, did residents send to landfills more than a third of organics that could have been composted?

“We decided it would be best to understand people’s perceptions of recycling first-hand,” Neumond said.

ARR staff, along with the innovation fellows, hit the streets to have “casual conversations” with residents about recycling and were walked through mock dinners in which respondents showed the researchers how they dispose of their food and other waste after eating. The overall 50 conversations helped the team identify some common threads.

The team concluded there are four factors in determining whether and how a resident recycles and composts: motivation, ability, knowledge and discovery.

Further, the researchers broke down their respondents into five types: enthusiasts, lone recyclers in a household, people who struggle to make ends meet and cannot prioritize recycling, the well-intentioned—but perhaps not informed—group, and the analysts or skeptics who do not trust their recycling is going to the right place.

“This research really did change our conversations with people,” Neumond said, adding those interactions now center on improving residents’ diversion efforts rather than quizzing them.

In response to these discoveries, ARR has changed its messaging. Any educational materials must now address one of the areas of its new framework for understanding recycling behaviors. The team has also rolled out an interactive way to teach the recycling dos and don’ts—a board game in which players sort items for recycling, composting, hazardous waste and donations.

“We can already see that people are more excited about recycling—that they’re more comfortable with the topic,” he said.

Progress and future monitoring

The Texas Campaign for the Environment has done independent monitoring to see how Austin businesses and apartment complexes are complying with the universal recycling ordinance.

Program Director Andrew Dobbs said from what his organization has seen the ordinance has been a success.

When the ordinance was introduced in 2013, Dobbs said hardly any of the businesses and multifamily complexes were filing an annual diversion plan, as required by the ordinance, or they were self-reporting that they would not be complying with regulations. Also known as a recycling plan, the document details such things as the types of material—and how much of it—the property plans to divert.

Dobbs said there has been a “big shift” since then, and a majority of properties are now reporting compliance. Further, he said volunteers have dropped in on businesses and apartment complexes and found most are following the rules.

“There are still big gaps that need to be filled and it will be an ongoing project, but we have the foundation and framework we need to make sure all businesses in the city of Austin are recycling and diverting materials through composting,” Dobbs said.

The next true measure of the city’s progress toward its zero-waste goal will come in 2020—when the latest diversion study is slated to be released.

Houston Superfund site leaked toxic chemicals after Harvey: EPA

ABC News Houston

At least one Superfund site was damaged and leaked toxic chemicals in Texas, despite early information that the sites were secure, the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed September 28.

New test results found very high levels of chemicals called dioxins around the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site in Channelview. The EPA previously said that the site needed further investigation, which was ongoing, but an armored “cap” intended to contain the waste should have prevented any toxic material from leaking. Part of this site is always underwater but after Hurricane Harvey flooding was up to 12 to 14 feet.

Dioxins can cause cancer and reproductive problems, as well as damage the immune system, according to the EPA. Low levels of dioxin have detected in the river before and humans can be exposed to it by swimming or eating seafood from the water, according to the Galveston Bay Foundation.

Thursday’s testing results released by EPA found levels at 70,000 nanograms per kilogram, more than 2,000 times the recommended level of 30 ng/kg, according to an EPA press release. The toxic chemical that leaked does not dissolve in water and could continue to spread. The company responsible for the site will continue to conduct testing in the area.

The San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site was contaminated with waste from paper manufacturing and was added to the Superfund list in 2008. The site was stabilized in 2011, according to the regional administrator, but it is still listed as one of the most contaminated sites in the country.

The companies considered potentially responsible for the pollution are also responsible for maintaining the site. On Sept. 9, EPA said they were using heavy equipment to cover the cap with rock and removed nine truckloads containing 45,000 gallons of stormwater from the area.

One of those companies, International Paper, said in a statement Friday that the materials were not released into the environment, saying that “this area represents roughly 0.00016 percent of the entire 16-acre armored cap.”

“The armored cap performed exceptionally well during the Hurricane Harvey storm event and remains fully intact,” communications director Tom Ryan said in a statement.

ABC News’ Kenneth Moton visited the San Jacinto site with EPA and local officials on Sept. 4 after some of the flooding receded. At that time the acting regional administrator for that area, Sam Coleman, said teams were working to inspect and repair the cap but they were pretty confident there were no leaks and that the San Jacinto site was secure before the storm hit.

After Hurricane Harvey, EPA reviewed aerial photos of the 41 Superfund sites in the Houston area and determined that 13 sites needed further testing. On Sept. 3 The Associated Press reported that the EPA was not on scene at the San Jacinto site, though EPA questioned the accuracy of that report. As of Sept. 9, some of the flooding had gone down and EPA and other officials were able to visit the sites and begin working at the sites.

Fort Worth Recycling Plan Passes with Key Upgrades

TCE Blog
By Corey Troiani, D/FW Program Director

On Tuesday, September 12, Fort Worth City Council voted to approve their 20-year “Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan.” As a result of widespread citizen participation and advocacy, the final document included many more program and policy goals to reduce waste and increase recycling than originally planned.

When the first full draft of the plan was released at the end of 2015, the coalition of advocacy groups including Texas Campaign for the Environment, Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club, and Zero Waste Fort Worth were unimpressed with the low-bar for diversion and lack of programs that address food waste and commercial recycling, especially considering the need and interest in these areas.

For example, the city’s public outreach survey asked residents about their interest in curbside food composting, and despite more than two-thirds of respondents saying they would participate, nothing was included in the initial draft plan. Further, according to the city’s data, commercial industries account for about three-times as much waste generated compared with residents, and no significant programs were included to address the growing stream of waste from these properties.

So, TCE helped draft and signed a coalition letter to the city, and continued to organize in Fort Worth communities through its door-to-door canvass to pressure city officials and staff on making the plan more ambitious. Over the course of about twelve months, TCE generated hundreds of letters to Fort Worth officials. TCE and its coalition partners also met with city staff and urged them to listen to the coalition’s recommendations for the plan—along with the hundreds of residents who have been engaging with their elected officials. The department agreed to consider the recommendations by our coalition and supporters, and pledged to include as much as possible.

At the end of August 2017, the city released the final draft of their long term plan. This version included almost every recommendation our coalition had been advocating for, including:

  • Developing a pilot curbside food composting program for residents (2018)
  • Preparing an ordinance for recycling where people work in the city, i.e. at all businesses (2018)
  • Involving stakeholders and advocacy groups in the plan’s implementation
  • Raising the city’s recycling goal from 40-50% to 60% by 2037
  • Evaluating a curbside collection program for textiles, clothing, kitchenware, furniture and mattresses (2018)
  • Making waste reduction and recycling more competitive by evaluating a raise on landfill tipping fees (2018)

On Tuesday, September 12, the city council listened to a final round of public testimony—all speakers and public comment cards were supportive of the plan—and the council voted unanimously to finally approve it (there were two absences).


Fort Worth is now the second city in North Texas to adopt a long-range resource management plan that puts the city on a path to Zero Waste. As neighboring cities consider how to plan for better resource management in the future, they now have two examples—Fort Worth and Dallas—on how to engage with interested residents, advocacy groups and community leaders. We applaud the efforts of city staff and councilmembers that helped aid in the development of this plan, and we look forward to lending our support in implementing these programs and objectives.

130+ Organizations Demand a Just Harvey Relief Effort Without Subsidies for Fossil Fuel and Petrochemical Companies

WASHINGTON – Organizations in the Gulf and across the country released a joint statement today expressing solidarity with the thousands of Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey and demanding that recovery funds flow to frontline communities, not to the oil, gas, and petrochemical companies that compounded Harvey’s impacts. This statement comes as former Shell CEO Marvin Odum was recently tapped to lead the recovery efforts in Texas, raising serious questions about whether taxpayer money may be diverted towards corporate polluters whose greenhouse gas emissions contributed to the destructive strength of Hurricane Harvey.

“The negligence of our state and federal government to properly regulate this industry has always hurt marginalized communities in Houston,” says Texas Campaign for the Environment Houston Program Director Rosanne Barone. “The problem is just worse now, and it’s being exposed on national media for all to see. Human health is at risk, with the people being hit the worst by the problem having contributed the least to its cause, and it’s time we start putting people over profits.”

The statement also highlights the powerful intersection of climate change, petrochemicals, and systemic environmental injustice, evidenced by the destruction and impacts of Hurricane Harvey.

“For years, Texas state government has prioritized oil, gas, and chemical industry profits ahead of the public interest, and Texans have paid the price with their health, their property, and their environment,” says Earthworks South Texas Organizer Priscilla Villa. “Harvey must be the event that changes our government from industry lackeys into public leaders who accept the reality of climate change and act on it by quickly moving away from dirty fossil fuels and plastics and towards a renewable energy future.”

Ahmina Maxey, US and Canada Program Director at GAIA, explains, “We are continuously discovering new and unforeseen threats that plastics pose to human health throughout its life cycle. Hurricane Harvey is one horrifying example of how frontline communities – mostly lower income communities of color – are disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel, chemical, and waste infrastructure and increasing unnatural disasters. This statement reflects a growing awareness of the environmental and social injustice of the plastic crisis.”

“Hurricane Harvey exposed the toxic interplay of catastrophic climate change, reckless petrochemicals use, and systemic injustice,” adds Carroll Muffett, President of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “The oil and gas industries threaten human rights from the well-head to fenceline to shoreline. The era of fossil fuels and plastic oceans must end.”

These 130+ organizations call on local leaders in Texas and Louisiana, and elected leaders at every level of government, to support immediate, inclusive, and community-led dialogs on the recovery and development of Houston and similarly affected cities and counties across the Gulf region, and to use those dialogs to deliver a better, more sustainable future for themselves and for people everywhere. In order for these dialogs to begin in earnest and begin to yield results, federal and state recovery dollars must be directed to affected families and communities, not to oil, gas, and petrochemical companies.


We won’t let Harvey stop our fight against pollution!

TCE Blog
By Allison Holmes

By now, the entire nation has heard the horrors of Harvey and the devastation it wrought on Texas coastal cities. In one fell swoop and a whole lot of rain, the fourth largest city in the United States and dozens of communities along the Texas Coast were brought to their knees. Many Texans lost their homes, some lost entire neighborhoods, and several lost their lives to the torrential terror. However, as Texans are liable to do, Houston and Coastal Texas are looking forward, tackling the long road to reconstruction now that the sun finally shines on Space City and its neighbors once more.

FILE – A barbed-wire fence encircles the Highlands Acid Pit that was flooded by water from the nearby San Jacinto River as a result from Harvey in Highlands, Texas. Floodwaters have inundated at least five highly contaminated toxic waste sites near Houston, raising concerns that the pollution there might spread. (AP Photo/Jason Dearen)

I watched the flood waters from my window all week. As a canvasser and organizer for the Houston office of Texas Campaign for the Environment, I felt anxious to help my city during an environmental disaster, and helpless while trapped inside a moat of floodwaters. While I was going stir-crazy and checking updates every ten minutes, my coworkers in the Austin and Dallas offices, unbeknownst to me, were collecting their shared paid time off so that they could distribute it among Houston canvassers like myself. That way we could be paid during the days it was impossible to do our door-to-door organizing.

Even though Houston was in crisis and we were unable to work the week of Harvey, we were all paid our regular paychecks through the altruism of our fellow offices—even our newest hires. In the midst of this disaster, it was one less problem to manage and I will be forever grateful to those who donated their precious time off. I really do work with some terrific human beings and am constantly humbled by the daily humanitarianism in the organizational culture at TCE.

After Harvey left Houston, the city was still in a state of crisis and we were unable to open our Houston offices. Organizers from the Houston office travelled to Austin, where our co-workers there welcomed us into their homes and helped us transition so we could continue our important work for the week.

For months now, we have been focused in the TCE Houston office on the health hazard and environmental nightmare at the San Jacinto River Superfund site. Because this site had been leaking harmful toxic chemicals into the San Jacinto River and Galveston Bay, a hurricane was exactly what we all feared. Harvey tore through the Superfund site, flooding it and potentially sending toxic waste throughout the area. It highlighted the dangers of leaving Superfund sites unaddressed, and with that knowledge, we continued our campaign in Austin with great success. We cannot thank our supporters enough for their contributions and for writing thousands of letters to our decision-makers so that we can utilize your strength in numbers to fully remove this incredibly dangerous waste.

The most important thing is that we don’t stop now. With US EPA Director Scott Pruitt’s new “Superfund Taskforce” prioritizing fast cleanups and not necessarily thorough clean ups that protect public health we need to make sure that our voices are heard loud and clear. We’ve already seen what can happen when a Superfund cleanup is poorly executed for the sake of fast development. The MDI site in Houston’s Fifth Ward met this fate when a school was built on top of what the EPA said was a cleaned-up Superfund site. It resulted in faculty and children with elevated levels of lead in their systems, and lead in the groundwater around the site. We cannot allow this to happen with further sites.

We cannot allow neighborhoods (which are mostly poor communities of color) to be poisoned for the sake of fast development. We cannot allow these dangerous sites to sit unattended, waiting for the next natural disaster to spread some of the most toxic chemicals known to humanity around underprivileged areas. Houston and the Texas Coast are strong. We were strong enough to take on Hurricane Harvey, and we are strong enough to take on those who wish to prioritize short-term private gain over long-term human health. Thank you for your past, current, and future support: it lets us continue fighting. All of our efforts hinge on your support and your voice, and there is nothing more powerful than the support of the people.

From the bottom of all of our hearts at TCE Houston, thank you, and keep fighting.

An Enormous, Urgent Task: Hauling Away Harvey’s Debris

New York Times
By Jason Schwartz and Alan Blinder

HOUSTON — On Labor Day, Pireta Darby sat on the front porch of her house in the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. The fruits of her labors were before her: the sodden objects lugged out of the home she shares with her mother and granddaughter. Here were two couches piled high with ripped-out carpet. A coffee table. A folding chair. And so much more, removed from the family home of about 60 years.

“I guess they’ll just come with the big truck with the claw thing” to haul it away, she said, gazing at the mess; at least the family has insurance.

Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

The piles up and down this street, and along many other nearby streets — shards of wallboard and mildewing carpet, artificial flowers and computer monitors — stand taller than some people. There are sofas and desk chairs, ironing boards and drum sets — discrete items all destroyed by a storm and the floodwaters that followed. And across this city, there are more than 100,000 such piles, many of them even larger.

Of all the challenges that southeast Texas faces after Hurricane Harvey, few will linger longer or more visibly than the millions of pounds of debris already crowding curbs and edging onto streets. The cleanup, needed from northeast Houston’s neighborhoods to the wealthy suburbs southwest of the city, will take months and cost billions of dollars.

Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston has identified two priorities for his city’s recovery: housing and debris removal.

“We’re going to pick it up, and we’re going to operate with the highest degree of urgency,” Mr. Turner said.

At the same time, Houston officials are asking residents to separate their Harvey-related waste into five piles: appliances; electronics; construction and demolition debris; household hazardous waste; and vegetative debris. A look at these streets suggested that few people seemed to be heeding the city’s pleas.

Other cities have been through this battle with a storm’s leavings. After floodwaters inundated East Baton Rouge Parish, La., last year, crews collected about two million cubic yards of debris. Superstorm Sandy, in 2012, led to about six million cubic yards of debris in New York State — the equivalent of four Empire State Buildings, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Katrina left behind 38 million cubic yards. Getting the stuff gone is a long process. It was only last month that Baton Rouge finished the debris removal process it organized in the wake of last year’s flooding there.

In Houston, where city officials say that some eight million cubic yards of debris will need to be hauled away, collection is farther along in some neighborhoods than in others. In Ms. Darby’s neighborhood, only a handful of volunteers were around to help in the disaster zone. In Bellaire, a wealthy city southwest of downtown, dozens of trucks were parked on the streets, their owners helping people bring their belongings outside. Poachers picked through the refuse for items that could potentially be sold, leading residents to spray-paint warning signs telling people to stay away from their debris.

Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

The job of deciding how to move these mountains has been left to county and local officials, who hire debris removal companies to help them dig out. FEMA will reimburse the local governments for 90 percent of the cost. One major removal company, AshBritt, already has “dozens of operations” going on in Texas from Harvey, said Jared Moskowitz, the general counsel for the company. He said he expects more to come.

Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency whose territory included New York and New Jersey, said that environmental considerations have to be part of the process, even after a disaster. Ms. Enck, who calls herself a “solid waste geek,” was heavily involved in debris removal after Sandy hit the Northeast. Figuring out what to do with debris is one of the most challenging aspects of any storm, and because decisions are generally made at the local level, she said, “every community has to kind of reinvent the wheel.”

Setting aside appliances like refrigerators for recycling, chipping downed trees for mulch instead of burning them, prevents pollution and extends the life of landfills. Leaking landfills can pollute groundwater. “The victims of these storms are already in environmentally compromised situations,” she said, “and the way debris is handled should not make it worse.”

She said that separating waste by type is anything but fussy, especially in the age of climate change, when scientists have shown that global warming is producing wetter storms and contributing to more destructive storm surges, and could also be making some storms more powerful.

“I fully understand people saying, ‘This is an emergency — let’s suspend the norms,’ ” Ms. Enck said. “But these hurricanes and floods are becoming the norm.”

Historically, Texas has not shown deep concern over environmental issues, and in the current crisis, its stance on debris removal has been similar. Governor Greg Abbott has temporarily suspended 19 environmental rules that the state said would “prevent, hinder or delay” Harvey disaster response.

After reviewing the changes, Andrew Dobbs, a program director with the Texas Campaign of the Environment, a nonprofit advocacy group, said, “They have suspended more or less every meaningful environmental protection.”

The communities hit by the storm “were already some of the most polluted in our country,” Mr. Dobbs said, “and the regulations in place were already insufficient to protect their health and well-being.” Relaxing the rules now, he said, will “escalate this problem in a dramatic way.”

At Ms. Darby’s house, the process of tossing and salvaging continued. With the help of some family members and their friends, the Darbys were packing some items into plastic containers for safekeeping at self-storage facility while they stay at a hotel. Flooding is not new to them: Tropical Storm Allison caused substantial damage in 2001, and the Darbys lived in a FEMA trailer while they fixed the house up that time.

As Ms. Darby decided what to toss and what to try to save, she reflected on how she had told herself a while back that she really should get rid of some things. “The Lord has a way of making you clean up and clean out,” she said with a laugh.

Her mother, Mary Darby, 84, was less sanguine, even after telling herself that the family had lost only possessions, not loved ones. Standing in her home, mold already visible on the walls, she began to cry.

“It’s material,” she said a few moments later. “But it hurts.”

Annie Correal and Manny Fernandez contributed reporting.