- Asher Price American-Statesman Staff
Austin officials are nearly doubling a curbside organic-material collection pilot program they hope eventually to extend to the entire city.
City officials are asking Austinites in 6,500 households in a handful of neighborhoods to separate their banana peels, egg shells, meat, chicken bones, milk cartons, leaves and any other organic material from their household trash and put the material into a new rolling garbage cart.
They will join 7,900 households in five neighborhoods involved in the free pilot program over the past year. The material is eventually converted into compost, which can be used to enliven plants, instead of buried in landfills.
Participation among the initial set of households has been weak, with fewer than 30 percent setting out one of the green 96-gallon carts each week.
The city is forging ahead, however, as part of its efforts to divert waste from landfills. As usable as compost is, nearly half of the materials that end up in landfills can be composted, city officials say.
And in that goal they’ve struck modest success, with the special organic collection routes gathering roughly four pounds more — or nearly 40 percent — of compostible material each week than routes collecting only yard-trimmings — which is also compostible.
Overall, the city collected 1,825 tons of organic materials through the program in 2013.
“We’re trying to get that participation rate up,” Vidal Maldonado, a manager at Austin Resource Recovery, told the city’s zero waste advisory commission last year.
The main challenge might be the ick factor.
Catherine Weitzenkorn, a homeowner on Singleton Avenue in East Austin, an area covered by the pilot program, said she supports the compost program but temporarily stopped disposing of food scraps last summer because the cart attracted flies.
A few houses down, the green cart belonging to Santiago Rodriguez sat in his driveway, even as his gray trash cart and blue recycling cart stood neatly by the curb. He said he had too few food scraps and yard waste to make the cart worthwhile.
“We want the city to take that away — it just takes up space,” he said.
Jeff Paine, who serves on the city’s zero waste advisory commission and runs an organics-collection business that serves restaurants, said the 96-gallon carts, the size of the blue recycling carts, are “overkill.”
Because of their size, and because they are lidded and go unstirred, maggots became a “massive deterrent” to using the compost carts while he lived in a house that was covered by the program. “My wife wouldn’t even open up the cart because they’d come boiling out over the top.”
But, he said, “it’s inevitable we’re headed toward universal curbside collection, with the zero-waste mission and all the momentum behind all these initiatives.”
City officials said participants can tamp down odors and sliminess by layering food scraps and yard trimmings to absorb moisture; occasionally washing out the cart with mild soap and water; and sprinkling baking soda in the cart to help control odors.
The question is whether Austinites will come to accept organic sorting the way they have recyclable sorting.
The city spent $485,000 on the program last year. It will spend $550,000 this year to pay for the expansion as well as ongoing service for the original customers.
The city’s Austin Resource Recovery Department says organics diverted from the landfill will help offset expenses related to curbside collection programs, but it has not forecast how citywide collection will affect monthly utility bills. City officials point out that separating out organic material allows residents to choose a cheaper, smaller trash can.
The city could look south for a model.
San Antonio’s city’s waste management department has rolled out a subscription-based program. Offered to 60,000 households, the San Antonio program has netted 11,000 subscribers, each paying $3 a month for weekly curbside compost collection.
The expansion in Austin begins Feb. 24. City officials host open houses from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Pickfair Community Center at 10904 Pickfair Drive in Northwest Austin, and Thursday at the South Austin Recreation Center, 1100 Cumberland Road.