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Dallas Looks at How to Produce Less Trash

September 21, 2012
Photo: Allison Smith, New York TimesNew York Times
Nick Swartsell
Original article here

If J. R. Ewing can quit smoking and promote solar energy, anything is possible in Dallas, environmental advocates say, even an ambitious plan to have the city recycling nearly all of its garbage by 2040.

“If Dallas can have a zero-waste plan, any city can,” said Zac Trahan, the Dallas program manager at Texas Campaign for the Environment, a group challenging the city’s reputation for big oil, big cars and big sprawl. “It can really be a huge opportunity to move toward a more sustainable Texas.”

Before the last of the plastic bags, crumpled papers and other urban tumbleweeds head to the recycling plant, the city will have to determine when to put into place the various steps of its plan, which the Dallas City Council formally adopted on Aug. 22. It will also have to address the lingering concerns of advocacy groups and business interests, like unintended environmental consequences and unfinanced mandates.

Dallas is only the second Texas city to pass such a plan; the goal of Austin’s plan, approved in 2008, is to have the city recycling 90 percent of its solid waste by 2040. Dallas plans to redirect 84 percent of the trash that currently heads to landfills. The plan notes that “Zero Waste” refers to an effort to recycle or reuse material whenever possible. According to the plan, the remaining 16 percent of solid waste is material that cannot currently be recycled or reused.

Houston has not passed a zero-waste plan, but city officials are also re-evaluating how to deal with its trash. Laura Spanjian, the director of Houston’s Office of Sustainability, said the city has already taken steps similar to those outlined in the Dallas plan, including expanding recycling services and introducing mandatory yard waste composting and pilot programs for business and multifamily unit recycling. It is also exploring other environmentally friendly ideas.

Dallas produces 2.2 million tons of solid waste a year, including 1.7 million tons from places that often do not recycle, like apartment buildings and businesses, according to a memo from Forest Turner, an assistant city manager. With Dallas’s population expected to grow by 40 percent in the next decade, the city’s landfill options are narrowing.

The plan originally included specific timelines for introduction of various steps, which include mandatory recycling service at apartments and businesses, composting programs and possibly bans on plastic bags and polystyrene, the material used in foam coffee cups, among other things. Councilwoman Linda Koop made a motion to remove timelines from the plan after controversy arose over some of its specifics and the amount of public comment that went into drafting them. Now that the timelines have been excluded, the next steps involve redrafting steps with more opportunities for people to weigh in.

“We’re going to come back to the council with a two-year plan of action,” Mr. Turner said. “We’re going to make a robust effort to get public input.”

That includes from the apartment industry, which Kathy Carlton, director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, said has “concerns with government mandates that would cost our industry money.”

Ms. Carlton said apartment complexes must contract out for garbage collection and that recycling was sometimes more expensive.

“Recycling in apartments is very difficult for us, because you have to educate residents or you end up paying for contaminated recycling containers,” she said.

Environmental advocates like Mr. Trahan also have some concerns, including how long it might take to put the plan into place and whether the plan would allow for the incineration of trash, something not usually considered part of a zero-waste initiative.

Mr. Trahan said his organization would push for shorter-term timelines, a plan that does not include incineration and more public comment.

“It all depends on what happens next,” he said. “This could be really huge for Dallas and Texas.”


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