As Austin concludes recycling phase-in, city preps for zero waste goal

Community Impact News

(Courtesy of City of Austin)

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.

However, 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, businesses, apartments and condominiums—to provide recycling services was complete Oct. 1.

Austin still has a long way to go to meet its zero-waste goal, but 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.

(Courtesy of City of Austin)

“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.

The last phase of the recycling ordinance that rolled out Oct. 1, required all multifamily and nonresidential commercial properties 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.

Single-family homes, to which the ordinance does not apply, receive curbside recycling collection via 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.

The Texas Campaign for the Environment completed independent monitoring of 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 waste-diversion plan, as required by the ordinance. Dobbs said there has been a “big shift” since then, and a majority of properties are now reporting compliance.

“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 2019—when the latest diversion study is slated to be released.

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 innovation fellows—designers and developers hired to bring solutions used in the tech sector to the public sector—to explore locals’ behaviors when it comes to material waste.

ARR Waste Diversion Planner Ron Neumond said the project was aimed at drilling into the “why” behind Austin’s numbers, such as why residents sent to landfills more than a third of organic material that could be composted.

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

ARR staff and innovation fellows spoke to residents about recycling and how they dispose of their food and other waste after eating. The team concluded four factors determine whether a resident recycles and composts: motivation, ability, knowledge and discovery.

“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 changed its messaging. Any educational materials must now address one of the areas for understanding recycling behaviors. The team 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.

Environmentalists protest EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s planned speech in The Woodlands

Houston Chronicle
By Alex Stuckey

Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, speaks during CERWeek by IHS Markit Thursday, March 9, 2017, in Houston. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

HOUSTON — About a dozen advocates called on Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt to take a “Toxic Tour” of contaminated areas in Houston during his visit Thursday for a planned speech at an oil and gas meeting in The Woodlands.

The protest over Pruitt’s planned speech to the Texas Oil and Gas Association’s annual meeting was held about 40 miles away, on Brady’s Landing, to prove a point: Pruitt should be there, where all the pollution is, instead of speaking to an industry event, advocates said.

“This is where the administrator of the EPA should be coming, especially in light of the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey,” said Rosanne Barone, program director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

More than 4 million pounds of toxic airborne emissions, as well as contaminated floodwater from Harvey poured into the Houston area — a region that’s already fraught with problems.

The communities near Brady’s Landing, for example, are constantly inundated with toxic chemicals released into the air by oil refineries, said Juan Parras, with the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

“It’s an invisible flood” of carcinogens, Parras said. He said he believes the EPA is pro-industry and that officials don’t appear to be working to reduce the level of emissions.

Though the group is not protesting outside of Pruitt’s speech in The Woodlands Thursday night, they said they hope he hears their message and will take a tour of their neighborhoods.

And that tour, lucky for him, would be free, said Rev. James Caldwell with the Coalition of Community Organizations.

Pruitt has been scheduled to speak Thursday night at the TOGA Lone Star Energy Forum in The Woodlands. The speech initially was closed to the media.

As of Thursday morning, however, Pruitt’s name had been removed from the list of speakers during the Distinguished Service Awards dinner.

The association and the EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alex Stuckey covers science and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. She can be reached at or

EPA Orders Cleanup at Texas Toxic Site Flooded by Harvey

Chicago Tribune
By Michael Biesecker, Associated Press

Members of the Texas Campaign for the Environment prepare to deliver over 2,300 letters from Texas families to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region VI office in Dallas, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. The letters are calling for saving federal cleanup programs under the Trump Administration. The EPA has approved a plan to remove sediments laced with highly toxic dioxin from a partially submerged Superfund site near Houston damaged during Hurricane Harvey. (AP Photo/LM Otero) The Associated Press

Trump administration orders two big corporations to pay for a $115 million cleanup at a Texas toxic waste site that may have spread dangerous levels of pollution during the flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration has handed a rare victory to environmentalists, ordering two big corporations this week to pay $115 million to clean up a Texas toxic waste site that may have spread dangerous levels of pollution during flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a directive Wednesday requiring International Paper and McGinnis Industrial Maintenance Corp., a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., to excavate 212,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

Pruitt visited the Superfund site outside Houston last month following historic rains and flooding from the storm, meeting with local environmental activists who had campaigned for years for approval of a cleanup plan.

Pruitt has said cleaning Superfund sites is among his top priorities, even as he has worked to delay and rollback a wide array of environmental regulations that would reduce air and water pollution. Often Pruitt has done so directly at the behest of industries that petitioned him for relief from what they characterize as overly burdensome and costly regulations.

At the waste pits, both companies opposed the expensive cleanup, arguing that a fabric and stone cap covering the 16-acre site was sufficient. The former site of a demolished paper mill that operated in the 1960s, the island in the middle of the San Jacinto River is heavily contaminated with dioxins — chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects.

“International Paper respectfully disagrees with the decision by the EPA,” said Tom Ryan, a spokesman for International Paper. He said removing the existing protective cap “could result in significant damage to public health and the local environment.”

Pruitt’s decision triggers the beginning of what could be months of negotiations between EPA and the two companies to reach a final settlement. If the companies refuse to comply with Pruitt’s order, EPA could sue in federal court to require compliance.

The Associated Press reported Sept. 2 about the risks from flooding at Houston-area Superfund sites, highlighting six prior occasions where the cap at the waste pits required significant repairs. Journalists surveyed seven flooded Superfund sites in and around Houston by boat, vehicle and on foot, including San Jacinto.

The EPA said at the time it was too unsafe for its personnel to visit the sites, and accused the AP in a statement of engaging in “yellow journalism” and creating panic. Nearly one month later, however, the agency confirmed that contaminated sediments at San Jacinto had, in fact, been uncovered by the storm.

A sample collected by an agency dive team from an exposed area at the site showed dioxin levels at 70,000 nanograms per kilogram — more than 2,300 times the level set to trigger a cleanup. Dioxins do not dissolve easily in water but can be carried away with any contaminated sediments and deposited over a wider area.

The EPA says additional testing will now be needed to determine whether the contamination spread and to ensure that the exposed waste material is isolated. Those results should be known in about two weeks, the agency said Thursday.

Meanwhile, workers have temporarily covered the exposed sediments with stone until the final cleanup begins.

The San Jacinto River empties into Galveston Bay, where state health officials have long advised against regularly consuming fish and shellfish due to contamination from dioxins and PCBs. The cleanup plan EPA approved this week requires the construction of a temporary dam to hold back the river while workers use heavy machinery to dig up and remove enough contaminated soil and sentiment to fill about 16,000 dump truck loads.

One of the local environmental advocates who met with Pruitt during his visit last month, Jackie Young, said people living along the river still don’t know whether the floodwaters carried toxins to their yards and homes.

“This is a monumental victory and testament to what an engaged community can accomplish,” said Young, executive director of Texas Health and Environment Alliance. “We may never know the extent of damage from Hurricane Harvey or numerous other storms, but at least the EPA is putting their best foot forward and moving in the only direction that upholds their mission.”