Can Austin Achieve Its Ambitious Zero-Waste Goal?

In 2009, the City of Austin set a goal of becoming zero-waste by 2040. What this highly-lauded, environmentally-conscious plan entailed was to have at least 90% of discarded materials from residences and businesses either be recycled or composted. By doing so, the city would send a fraction of its trash to municipal landfills. This civic strategy was the first of its kind in Texas.

For city residents living in single-family homes, single-stream, curbside recycling has made is easy and convenient to separate recyclables from garbage, and many people have happily switched to smaller garbage cans, which are dwarfed by their larger recycling bin companions. As far as composting goes, the city lacks the curbside collection programs of cities such as San Francisco.

But what about commercial properties and larger multi-unit residential developments, which generate a lot more refuse than the average single family home? In 2013, the city kicked off the implementation of an ordinance requiring businesses, schools, medical facilities and apartment and condominium complexes to provide recycling services. To assist in compliance, a four-year plan phase-in plan was adopted, the last phase of which was rolled out on October 1 with the requirement that managers of all multi-family and nonresidential commercial properties provide tenants and employees with convenient access to recycling services.

To make compliance more attractive, the City has offered commercial properties rebates and other incentives to invest in recycling and composting equipment. The City has also contracted with companies such as Texas Disposal Services to pick up recycling.

Although full compliance has not been achieved, and a 2015 study showed that 80 percent of items in city landfills could have been recycled or composted, many observers in both the business and environmental advocacy community point to signs of progress. Two areas in which this has been measured are the fact that the city’s largest processor of recyclables has doubled its workforce to keep up with the increased volume of materials being collected, and local environmental monitors have reported rising rates of compliance.

The next benchmark for Austin’s ambitious zero-waste goal will come in 2020, when the next study will be released. At that point, we will again measure how much of our recyclables and compostables are being properly diverted from local landfills.

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