As recycling levels off, should Austin require residents to do more?

Bob Gedert started his job as the director of Austin Resource Recovery in 2010, fresh off a similar gig in the Central California city of Fresno, where he had boosted the amount of waste diverted from landfills from 29 percent to 75 percent in just five years.

But success hasn’t come quite so fast in Austin.

Austin, which is aiming to divert nearly all its waste from landfills by 2040, recently released a study showing that the rate has stalled at just below 40 percent for the past four years. And that’s only for the curbside customers the city serves — Gedert thinks that for multifamily and commercial properties using private haulers the rate is even lower.

Gedert chalks up his different experiences in Fresno and Austin to two different models for recycling. In Fresno, the city was facing a $10,000-a-day fine for not meeting a state mandate to divert 50 percent of its waste by 2000. To avoid the fine, the city decided to require recycling, dinging customers $50 if there were any recyclables in their trash receptacles, he said.

In Austin, Gedert said he’s committed to a voluntary recycling program that doesn’t rely on the “heavy hand of government” but instead trusts that the city’s environmentally conscious residents see the value in recycling — it helps conserve natural resources and reduces pollution — and that all they need is some coaching to make it part of their lifestyle.

“Here people … put the stamp of approval that this is a green city,” Gedert said. “It’s a challenge to put what your value is down physically into action at the household level, and that’s slow. That doesn’t happen in four or five years.”

Time for a mandate?

Not everyone agrees that Austin should stay the course with voluntary recycling.

Some zero waste advocates say it’s time, or soon will be, for city leaders to mull the possibility of requiring residents to recycle or pay a penalty. (The city has a mandatory recycling ordinance for commercial and multifamily properties, but it doesn’t yet apply to all those properties.)

Andrew Dobbs, Central Texas program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the city might be able to gain a slight increase in recycling with better education campaigns — Austin Resource Recovery’s annual budget for that is now $1.7 million — but getting out of the rut will require major changes. And that ultimately includes a mandatory system with a “fee people will notice on their bill for having failed to do the right thing,” Dobbs said.

“If not this, then what?” Dobbs said. “And if your answer is more of the same, more PR campaigns … then you got to tell me why it’s going to work this time.”

Cathy Gattuso, a member of the city’s Zero Waste Advisory Commission, said the city should make one more go at outreach initiatives, but “if we don’t see there’s much change in what goes into the recycling bin … then we have to look at talking about” a requirement.

Mayor Steve Adler shares that sentiment.

“I think we need to make a better run at the voluntary measures and make it more top-of-mind before we resort to those kinds of last steps,” he said.

Stacy Guidry, president of Texas Zero Waste Strategies and a member of the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, also said it’s not time to mandate recycling and called upon the City Council to “reinforce why we do this and what are the benefits.” She even noted it would dovetail with the council’s focus on reducing the cost of living in Austin.

“Zero waste is the fastest way we’re going to get to affordability, and it’s kind of a low-hanging fruit,” Guidry said. “It’s very easy and very cheap to stick something in a hole, but all the energy and activity around saving that stuff from landfills, making it into new products … that’s really the fastest way, in my opinion, that we can get affordability.”

The city pays $21.36 per ton to deliver trash to the landfill. The cost for recycling varies, but in June, the city paid Balcones Resources $29.17 per ton and Texas Disposal Systems $42.93 per ton (those contracts are currently being renegotiated).

But recycling creates jobs in manufacturing recycled items into new products and nets the city tax revenue from businesses, Guidry said. A recent city-commissioned economic impact report found that Austin’s recycling sector generated about $720 million in economic activity and accounted for about 2,675 permanent jobs.

‘A community program’

Austin Resource Recovery has a bevy of initiatives aimed at increasing recycling and composting.

The education component includes working with Keep Austin Beautiful to teach students about zero waste, mailing information about what can and can’t be recycled and attending community events. City staffers bring a clicker to events to keep track of how many people they talk to; the number last year was 10,129.

In spite of that, a recent study said 44 percent of residential trash in the city that is sent to landfills is recyclable — in fact, more tons of recyclables are sent to landfills than to recycling facilities — and another 46 percent is material that could have been composted, such as food waste.

The city department recently launched an online survey, which runs through Aug. 24, in hopes of figuring out why residents are still throwing away so many recyclables. Gedert said his guess right now is that busy households are mostly recycling items from the kitchen, but things like the “newspaper in the living room” or the “shampoo bottle” are slipping through the cracks.

Austin Resource Recovery also has a plan to purchase trucks and carts for weekly organics collection in the city’s next budget year and then roll out that service to all single-family households in the city over four years (the city is still crunching how much this would cost). A pilot program includes 14,000 homes, and one city study found 62 percent were participating.

And this past week, the city announced it was converting about 50 trash cans downtown to recycling receptacles. Gedert said he’s also working to bring recycling containers to city parks. That’s because a key to building an “intrinsic motivation” in Austinites to recycle is making it available wherever they go, he said.

“Though Austin Resource Recovery is leading the charge on zero waste and it’s part of our mission, I’d like to believe that this is not a governmental program,” Gedert said. “This is a community program, and we’re using governmental resources to embrace a community value.”

An evolution

Austin first rolled out recycling in the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until 2005 that then-Mayor Will Wynn committed the city to a goal of going zero waste by 2040 (the Texas Legislature had a waste reduction goal in 1994, but it was never fully enforced). More specifically, the city is shooting for diverting 95 percent or more of its waste from landfills by that year.

Gary Liss, a California-based consultant who was involved in writing two plans about how Austin could achieve its zero waste goal, said he recalls backing a voluntary program for Austin so the city could work on growing support for recycling and acquire the additional capacity for processing recyclables. But if the city isn’t achieving its goals with a voluntary recycling program, it could start accepting more materials or add more rules, or both, he said.

Liss noted the city could add recycling requirements without establishing a fine, such as by mandating that all customers must put out a recycling bin. About 75 percent of the customers served by the city of Austin put out their recycling cart, according to a city study done earlier this year.

Roughly 50 U.S. cities have adopted zero waste goals, Liss said, “so by no means is it the norm, but everyone is now viewing it as an aspirational goal.”

Seattle’s recycling rate was 57 percent in 2014, and it’s now aiming to reach 60 percent by this year (the benchmark has gotten pushed back a couple times). The city began a voluntary curbside recycling program in 1988 and instituted recycling requirements in the mid-2000s, but the rules have changed over time, said Tim Croll, the solid-waste director for Seattle Public Utilities.

Starting this year, for instance, the city is prohibiting food waste from city garbage containers. Residents whose trash contains more than 10 percent recyclables and food are subject to a $1 fine, while commercial and multifamily buildings could pay a $50 fine.

“There was always a feeling in Seattle that you should crawl before you walk and walk before you run,” Croll said.

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