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

October 30, 2017

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.

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