On May 5, 2018 voters in Cedar Park will elect a new mayor and three new members of the City Council. These four new leaders will form a MAJORITY of the City Council: the right four could mean a greener, more responsible future for Cedar Park. To help voters know just where the candidates stand on the issues most important to Texas Campaign for the Environment and our supporters we asked the 8 candidates the following questions:
1. How important is it to you that Cedar Park divert discards away from landfills?
2. Would you support a formal policy committing the City of Cedar Park to specific waste diversion goals?
3. What policies or programs do you support to increase waste diversion? Specifically to you support…
a. Diverting yard waste and bulk waste away from landfilling and into mulching, composting, and recycling?
b. A pilot program for curbside compost collection?
c. Investing in a year-round household hazardous waste collection center, perhaps through a public-private partnership?
d. Any other initiatives?
4. Would you support ordinances guaranteeing recycling services at apartment/condo complexes? Would you support such an ordinance for commercial businesses?
1. Extremely important! I was very surprised that recycling wasn’t the norm when we moved here. I’m not sure citizens realize the jobs that are created by increased diversion as well as the environmental benefits and the opportunity to educate the public and possibly re-distribute usable goods.
2. Yes! A goal with a plan is just a wish. If we don’t take steps to define what we want our end goal to be, why talk about it? Why suggest it? I would like to see a well-thought out plan for moving Cedar Park towards zero waste, including a cost break down as well as a benefit breakdown.
3. a. Yes, as this is great for the city and could potentially become another source of income for the City.
b. Yes, I would support a pilot program for curbside compost. Pickup schedules, bins and a plan for the compost (donation or sales) would need to be part of the proposal.
c. Yes I support this, and want to explore the possibility of public-private partnerships or collaborations with area non-profits to defray costs.
d. I partnered with Break It Down Austin while I was a grocery store manager to come in and streamline our recycling needs (packing materials, shrink wrap, compost, paper, cardboard).
4. Yes, I would be in favor of mandatory recycling ordinances for apartments (which many communities around Texas—including San Marcos, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Allen, Euless and several others—already have) and commercial businesses. This would need to be a coordinated effort with complexes and business with perhaps an incentive program attached. Perhaps discounts on rain barrels or systems for recyling water used on the grounds of their properties.
The Austin City Council may vote as early as this week on who to hire for their new City Manager. One of the finalists, Ann Arbor, Michigan City Administrator and former Austin Director of Public Works Howard Lazarus, has raised considerable concern among TCE and other environmentalists. Here is our message to Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council regarding Mr. Lazarus; please contact them yourself and echo this message using this link: http://www.austintexas.gov/service/email-all-austin-city-council-members
December 13, 2017
Mayor and Council:
I am writing today to express Texas Campaign for the Environment’s deep concern with the prospect of Howard Lazarus being hired as Austin City Manager. We have serious doubts about Mr. Lazarus’ ability to effectively lead Austin’s Zero Waste efforts, and ask you to critically consider these facts as you move forward with one of the most important decisions you will ever make as a council.
Recycling Processing Contract
Recent Zero Waste controversies have revolved around questions of the Anti-Lobbying Ordinance. Vendors, commissioners, and TCE have expressed worries that City staff could abuse the ordinance in order to compete with private industry or to unfairly punish vendors.
These fears stem in large part from the past actions of Howard Lazarus in his capacity as Director of Public Works. In February 2009 Lazarus and his department submitted a bid to an RFP seeking a recycling processor for the City, proposing that the City abandon private processing and instead build a new materials recovery facility (MRF) on City-owned property.. Rather than pursuing an open process before City commissions and Council, Lazarus attempted to use the procurement process to spring policy decisions on elected officials.
It was this very sort of behavior that caused the recent controversy over biosolids processing, and a perpetuation of this tendency is liable to lead to even more protracted fights over contracts that ought to be easily approved. This change in management is an opportunity to improve trust between civil society and City staff; Lazarus’ hire would represent a step in the opposite direction.
Furthermore, in submitting the bid Lazarus actually signed an Anti-Lobbying Ordinance agreement, saying that he had not communicated with City staff regarding this topic. By the loose and shifting standards set for ALO enforcement since then the everyday activities necessary to do his job would have required communications that would have disqualified any other bidder. For the Director of Public Works to swear that they are not communicating with City staff or other decision-makers reflects either a profound misunderstanding of the policy or a dishonest abuse of it to gain an advantage over private industry. In either instance it raises significant questions about Lazarus’ fitness for greater responsibility.
The confluence of decision-making that reflects either gross misunderstanding or dishonesty and an underhanded attempt to use procurement processes for major policy changes without public oversight suggests that Mr. Lazarus is an incredibly risky choice for such a significant position of authority.
Ann Arbor Recycling Controversy
Austin’s Zero Waste vision is rooted in a series of public-private partnerships that combine the regulatory authority and resources of the City with the operational flexibility of private vendors. Mr. Lazarus has indicated tendencies that clash substantially with that vision. These tendencies are not limited to Austin either: one of his first actions as City Administrator in Ann Arbor, Michigan was to convince the City Council there to terminate its contract with a firm that had processed the City’s recycling for 23 years. The firm claims that a downturn in recycling markets had somewhat eroded the value of the City’s contract, and that the City–that is to say, Lazarus–used false claims of safety violations to justify cancelling the contract prematurely.
Austin has a bold vision when it comes to Zero Waste and after years of debate, discussion, and experimentation we have a good idea about what works and what doesn’t. Howard Lazarus has shown a commitment to strategies contrary to those best local practices and a tendency to create problems for Zero Waste operations wherever he goes. We urge you to take these topics into very serious consideration as you weigh your choice for City Manager.
Note that we do not have any familiarity with Spencer Cronk’s record at this time, though we are reaching out to Zero Waste and environmental advocates in Minneapolis for their perspectives. We do suggest that you ask yourselves if either of these men represent the kind of substantial cultural change and break with past practices that the 10-1 council was elected to enact. If not, we encourage you to show the leadership to start this process over until you find the change agent the people of Austin need and demand.
Thank you again for your consideration, and please do not hesitate to contact us for any reason, any time.
Central Texas Program Director
Texas Campaign for the Environment
On June 14, 2017 the City of Austin’s Water and Wastewater Commission passed a resolution attacking the Zero Waste Advisory Commission (ZWAC). In our view, ZWAC built upon the work of the Joint Committee on Bio-Solids Management and improved public oversight on a costly, environmentally sensitive program. Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) does not support this resolution and urges our supporters to take action in favor of public oversight and environmental protection.
In July 2016 TCE learned that the Water and Wastewater Commission was set to approve a contract of up to $20 million that would essentially privatize Austin Water Utility’s biosolids management program, including the production of Austin’s famous Dillo Dirt brand of biosolids compost.
Biosolids are also sometimes called sewage sludge. After human wastes and other materials are flushed down all our drains, they are treated and the water is removed leaving the biosolids. TCE has become active in the last year or two in fighting proposals to dump this sludge onto agricultural land as fertilizer. Instead we support composting this material.
This $20 million contract was with a company called Synagro, whom we have now worked with through this process but at the time we were very concerned about environmental challenges to their practices in other communities. Furthermore, this privatization represented to us a major change in policy—the transfer of a public program to an out-of-state corporation—and to make matters worse Austin Water Utility claimed that all of the plans for this program were confidential and refused to answer our questions about Synagro’s intentions.
Essentially Austin Water asked for a $20 million blank check made out to a company with an imperfect environmental record so that they could privatize an iconic City program with zero details as to their plans.
In July 2016, the Water and Wastewater Commission approved this contract with only one vote in opposition. The Austin City Council responded by postponing their approval and directing the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Zero Waste Advisory Commission (ZWAC) to create a Joint Committee on Biosolids Management to examine policy options and make recommendations to Council. After a short and intense work process, the Joint Committee issued a recommendation in October 2016.
The Water and Wastewater Commission endorsed this policy with a unanimous vote with no amendments. ZWAC commissioners who were not on the Committee had additional suggestions for ensuring that the policies did the most to protect the environment and public interest. Commissioners are responsible to the people of Austin, not working groups or committees—ZWAC commissioners took this obligation seriously.
Austin Water Utility staff—used to minimal oversight from commissioners—have expressed opposition to the ZWAC protections at a subsequent City Council committee stakeholder meeting in May 2017. Unfortunately on June 14, 2017, Austin Water and Wastewater Commission passed a resolutionwith false and misleading claims about the ZWAC amendments.
We need better public oversight, and we need accountability for how OUR money is spent. We need the best possible protections for our environment and health—especially when there is a risk of human wastes being disposed carelessly—tell your Councilmember right now!
This is a pretty obscure topic, and a lot of folks don’t want to think about what happens to the stuff we flush, but the differences are clear.
Require a specific definition for “compost.” TCE and others have been concerned that some sludge is not being treated enough to actually be turned into compost, but it’s being called “compost” anyways. All parties want to compost all material; ZWAC simply wants to ensure that we all have a common standard for what “compost” means that prevents lower quality material from being dumped on land near you.
Make sure testing is independent and accountable. The definition that Synagro and others would use requires sample tests on a regular basis, and allowing a private company to sample their own product leaves the door open to abuse—it’s self-regulation. The ZWAC recommends that either a City employee or a third party conduct these tests instead. Abuse still might happen, but we can more easily hold them accountable when it is uncovered.
Use best practices for keeping plastic pollution off the land. These biosolids have LOTS of trash and other debris mixed in. Insufficient screening means plastic pollution getting tilled into the soil, or even delivered to your garden. All parties want to keep those materials out of the final product, ZWAC simply insists that the best practices be used for this so that the screening is as thorough as possible—namely the use of screens small enough to capture this waste.
Prevent indefinite “emergencies” that harm the environment. If things go wrong in the composting process, the vendors have the power to shift back to “land application” on an emergency basis. History has shown that sometimes companies or governments can use “emergencies” to allow abuses on a long-term basis. ZWAC insists that any “emergency” declaration outline the plan for returning to normal operations.
Commission review of pest and odor policies. All parties want the City to set policies to keep odors and pests—like insects, rats, and feral hogs—to a minimum. ZWAC simply wants a specific timeframe—90 days–for these policies to be adopted so that they don’t drop through the cracks and the chance for the public to see how their health and quality of life are being protected.
Protect the Dillo Dirt brand. Austin was one of the first cities in the world to compost our biosolids, and our Dillo Dirt brand compost has set a high standard for this product. If another company is going to market materials under this name, they need to meet the same standards, and ZWAC makes that clear.
Keep toxic bulking agents out of our compost. One exciting feature of the new biosolids compost program is that it will use waste lumber from construction and demolition projects for some of the “bulking agents” that turn the sludge into compost—keeping these materials out of our landfills. ZWAC wanted to make it clear that toxic materials like asbestos and painted or treated lumber are not included in this process.
Let ZWAC and other commissions review pertinent contracts. City commissions ensure that the public is represented in the policy process and makes contracts subject to public scrutiny. This saves money and protects our health, welfare, and environment. ZWAC wants sludge contracts reviewed by that commission and others to make sure we are safe with these risky materials.
Responding to Water and Wastewater’s Attacks
As you can see from a simple comparison of these policies, there should be no reason for serious or principled conflict between these commissions. ZWAC suggested improvements, but for whatever reason Water and Wastewater Commissioners not only disagreed with these suggestions, but also passed a resolution attacking ZWAC—you can see the document here.
A lot of the Commission’s concerns were addressed above, but here’s TCE’s response to the other relevant points made by that commission.
“Authoritarianism…” This claim is an attack on the character of ZWAC commissioners, an unprecedented and very irregular act for another commission to take. The idea that volunteer citizens can be authoritarian with regard to the government indicates either a misunderstanding of the term or a conception that puts the prerogatives of the state over those of citizens. Either way it is a reckless claim to make, one that threatens to derail the entire policy process on this question.
“One side’s objectives… May not be in the best interests of all stakeholders.” This statement assumes that there are distinct objectives and interests for the two commissions, though both are supposed to be committed to the same things—the public interest and environment. There is not a single ZWAC amendment that serves any interest other than greater oversight, improved accountability, and increased environmental protection. If these are their objectives and interests what are the Water and Wastewater Commission’s?
“Prevent the highest and best use of the biosolids commodity and limit it to a market of compost that is not currently sustainable.” This claim is absolutely false. In both documents point number one expresses a desire to “strive” to make compost with our biosolids—a verb that leaves room for other processes. Both include an identical hierarchy graphic that clearly leaves room for other processes (you can see it at the top of either the Water and Wastewater Commission recommendations or the ZWAC recommendations). And both documents have an identical point number 9 that encourages the department to “vet and pilot new technologies and management strategies.” Any party that claims that the ZWAC document precludes any other techniques besides composting either hasn’t read the document or is willfully misrepresenting what it says.
And as for the claim that compost marketing is unsustainable, Synagro and other vendors in this market have repeatedly claimed throughout this process that they can market 100% of Austin’s biosolids as compost. This is good news for rural Texans tired of land application in their communities.
“Mandate excessive testing methods which would delay the production of the commodity and increase production costs.” Whatever process is ultimately approved, the plan is to operate it at the City’s Hornsby Bend Wastewater treatment plant in conjunction with City staff. Samples will have to be taken in any case to meet the “Seal of Testing Assurance” (STA) standards supported by both sets of recommendations. If City employees are there, if samples have to be taken, and if the policy to have only City employees take the samples how does this raise costs? A third party might cost a small amount, but in a $20 million contract these costs are minimal. This claim strikes us as an attempt to find something else to be “concerned” about in a document that has nothing to worry about in it.
“Allow for third party review of proprietary information included in competitive bids which is not proper etiquette.” It is deeply concerning that any City commission or other body charged with oversight for the public would prioritize “etiquette” over thorough scrutiny of how ratepayers and taxpayers money is being spent. Contracts are reviewed by the public and Council prior to approval in San Antonio and Dallas, among many other cities—why not in Austin?
Austin’s recycling department, Austin Resource Recovery (ARR), has released a survey asking residents about two proposed ideas for reducing waste – upgrading the existing curbside recycling program to weekly service, or launching a new service for city-wide curbside composting. Of course we want both of these to happen – but unfortunately, politics and economics mean that the department almost certainly won’t be able to do them both at the same time.
We’ve put a lot of thought and effort into it, and Texas Campaign for the Environment believes that city-wide curbside composting should be the top priority right now.
Composting will make a bigger impact by reducing more waste. Curbside composting will capture an entire new class of materials that most families currently have to throw into the landfill. Yes, a lot of folks compost in their backyards or gardens, but the vast majority of families don’t. Furthermore, things like meat and bones, dairy, pizza boxes, napkins, paper towels, and other food-soiled papers aren’t easy for anyone to deal with in the backyard. They can go in the new curbside composting cart, so almost every Austin family will benefit. We would also benefit from weekly recycling, but the overall waste reduction wouldn’t be as dramatic because most Austinites already recycle – our participation rate is almost 90 percent.
If we don’t compost, on the other hand, these materials decompose in landfills and produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide is in the short run. Curbside composting is a huge part of doing what Austin can to stop or limit climate change.
Still, what about the families with too much recycling for bi-weekly collection? First, any Austin Resource Recovery customer can get a second recycling cart for free. And if you currently have a 64-gallon cart, you can upgrade to a 96-gallon cart without charge. If this doesn’t work you can always just set another box with excess recycling next to your cart. Finally—and most importantly—we all need to do a better job about REDUCING our consumption before we even get to recycling. Making smarter purchases to avoid packaging up front is actually better for the environment than recycling.
A study of Austin’s trash last year did find that almost half of what we are sending to landfills could be recycled, and ARR believes that weekly recycling would bring more material into the blue cart. A big chunk of the trashed recycling they found, however, is soiled paper that should actually be composted, not recycled. That means we can divert the MAJORITY of our trash with a good curbside composting program. Crossing that 50 percent threshold would put us well on our way to eventually reaching our long-term Zero Waste goal –90 percent reduction by 2040.
If we can eventually get all of that “putrescible” (rotten, organic) trash diverted we could probably switch to bi-weekly trash collection, and that would eventually mean huge cost savings for residents. Even before that at least three-quarters of all ARR customers should be able to use curbside composting to downsize their trash carts and save money, more money than the composting service will cost. The anticipated rate increase is also expected to be smaller for customers with smaller trash cans, which only adds to the incentive for us to trash less and divert more.
Still, these savings won’t come if customers don’t know that they can get them, and they won’t know unless we have great educational programs. It’s time for Austin Resource Recovery and other City departments to stop talking AT our communities—especially low income and historically marginalized communities—and and to start letting them speak for themselves. We need to break out of business as usual when it comes to outreach on Zero Waste and other environmental programs. If we do curbside composting now, we will have 3 to 5 years to educate better on recycling before we spend on switching to weekly collection.
Fact: Recycling means recovering valuable materials in our waste and marketing them as commodities. Like all commodities, recyclables go up and down in price over time. When the prices are high, Austin and other communities that recycle make money. When prices are low, recycling can cost money. Right now all commodity prices are low as a result of historically low oil prices. At some point in the future, however, commodity prices will go back up, and if Austin doesn’t have the infrastructure to capture recyclables at that time the money we lose then could dwarf the money we are losing now.
FACT: Austin is still saving money with recycling. In good times the sales of recyclables makes more money than it costs to pick up, sort, and sell those recyclables, but even in bad years recycling is still a better bet than trash. Landfills are all cost/no benefit for ratepayers, so every bit that you recycle saves you money you would have wasted by throwing those same materials in the trash. Austin Resource Recovery customers pay 46% more for trash than recycling, and if we recycle more we could save more.
FACT: There are costs and benefits that these reporters don’t take into account, namely, the long-term costs of landfilling. Permitting and building a new landfill costs tens of millions of dollars and saddles some community with odor, vermin, litter, traffic, and other nuisances. Every ton that we recycle delays the day that we need to spend millions to build a new dump somewhere in Central Texas. Note that the Statesman article failed to account for this enormous cost of waste and benefit of recycling, or any of the other externalities associated with dumping.
FACT: The scare line that “we don’t know what happens to our recycling” is unfair. Why would anybody pay good money for our recyclables just to trash them? If they wanted to trash them they could get US to pay THEM, not the other way around. Our glass, plastic, aluminum, steel, and paper goes to manufacturers around the world to be made into a variety of new products, and the fact that there are so many markets for our materials isn’t something to be afraid of, it’s something to celebrate.
FACT: Austin has a unique solution for these concerns. The solution: the upcoming Austin Remanufacturing Hub. This project will bring in over a dozen recycling processers and other Zero Waste-oriented businesses to Southeast Austin. Rather than shipping our commodities around the world—cutting into the profit from our commodity sales—we will be able to handle them right here in Austin. This project will create more than 1,000 new manufacturing jobs in one of the most economically challenged areas of the city. There is an upfront investment in this facility for sure, but how many cities get to create hundreds of manufacturing jobs and create value for their recycling all at the same time?
This article repeats the misinformation spread by recycling denialist John Tierney recently in an article which has been debunked by us and by other experts in the field. Make sure to read these responses as well.
Recycling saves money, creates jobs, protects the environment, and reduces our dependence on waste facilities. Zero Waste is a common sense policy that can be achieved easily if only we have the political will to do it. Articles like this undermine that political will, and that’s why we have to take strong action to answer them. Please take a moment to sign the petition and send a letter to the Statesman today!
An October 21, 2015 the University of Texas Energy Poll (link) found that strong majorities of Texans believe that climate change is occurring due to human behavior and that local governments should have the power to limit oil and gas operations in their city limits. These are two issues that Texas Campaign for the Environment and our allies have worked hard on here in Texas, facing down lots of politicians who represent the exact opposite viewpoint. This data now makes it clear: Texans are tired of these politics-as-usual games.
We can even predict the temperature of other planets and moons in our solar system by measuring the amount of greenhouse gases in their atmospheres through reflected light. When we send probes to those planets, our predictions have turned out to be correct. But some politicians and climate deniers seem to think that our smartest scientists know less about our own planet than we do about Mercury, Venus, or Mars. They think climate scientists know less basic chemistry and physics than talk show hosts and lobbyists.
We worked with many groups to fight hard against this law, generating thousands of letters, phone calls, and emails from Texans around the state, holding demonstrations and visiting with dozens of legislators. In the end, our elected officials did the bidding of the special interests anyway. But now we have the numbers to prove that Texas residents want no part of it.
Candidates for state office will be filing to run in the coming weeks, and the vote that really counts for 90% + of the seats in this state will happen on March 1—the party primaries. Whichever party dominates in your area, please be ready to show up to the polls and vote for candidates that promise to protect local control and address climate change. There may not be a lot of great candidates where you live, but showing up to public events and holding them accountable with tough questions can help change their minds over time. Remember: most Texans are on your side.
We have known for years that no matter what the stereotypes say, residents in every corner of our state believe in environmental protection. We know this because we go out into neighborhoods in all 181 state legislative districts and talk to them every day. Now is the time for us to organize this concern about climate change, this support for local control into a real force here in Texas. Texas Campaign for the Environment is uniquely situated to do just that—thanks for helping us get there!