Confused about Austin’s composting program? Here’s what you need to know

Composting can be a mucky, gross, smelly, decaying mess. You know this if you have a compost pile set up at your house. Sometimes you add too many leftovers and not enough leaves and the pile gets, well, a little out of hand.

Thanks to the city of Austin’s growing curbside composting program, now 52,000 Austin homes are getting familiar with what happens to their food once they dump it. The program started in 2013 in a few pockets of the city and then expanded to 14,000 homes.

This fall, an additional 38,000 homeowners and renters received green bins to start composting, which means food and yard waste can go to a composting facility to be turned into a useful soil amendment rather than going into the landfill, where the food rots and emits greenhouse gasses. Austin is somewhat behind similar cities around the country when it comes to citywide composting. San Francisco implemented it in 2009, Portland in 2011.

How much will it cost you? Once all 190,000 homes that Austin Resource Recovery serves have the curbside composting bins, the city will start charging an additional $4 per month for the service, pending council approval. If you already compost or don’t want the bin, too bad. You’ll still have to pay the extra fee and take the cart. If that feels like an imposition, consider San Francisco, which issues fines if you don’t follow the rules and separate trash from food waste.

The carts get picked up once a week, on the same day as your regular trash collection. Austin’s composting rules are few:

  • No cat litter, cigarette butts, diapers, pet waste, animal carcasses, rocks, wine corks, Styrofoam or other trash.
  • You can compost meat, but you shouldn’t put bacon grease or other oil in the bin.
  • The only plastic bags you can use are the small BPI-certified compostable bags. They fit in your kitchen collector, and you can then toss them in the bin. Some people place them in the freezer and then empty into the bin the night before it goes out. Make sure they have this logo on them.

I’m trying to avoid using those plastic compostable bags, but that means I’m dumping spoiled leftovers straight into a green bin. Here’s how I keep it from being the grossest compost bin on the block:

  • Put paper goods in the bin with the scraps to absorb liquid. Once I started layering the bin with newspaper before (and after) adding scraps, there weren’t nearly as many grubs and bugs, and the smell wasn’t so bad. You could do this with cardboard boxes, pizza boxes, paper plates and office paper, but you can also use yard waste, including leaves.
  • If you have a lot of leaves, use the composting bin first before filling paper yard waste bags.
  • Collect food scraps in a cereal box or tissue box, but be sure to remove any plastic lining first.
  • Wash the container you use to collect scraps in your kitchen — I use a bowl with a lid — after emptying it into your green cart. Spray out the inside of your green cart from time to time.
  • If the smell really gets out of hand, start sprinkling baking soda inside the kitchen collector and the outside bin.
  • Meat and fish tend to emit the worst smells in the bin, so you can freeze those scraps and put in the curbside container the night before your collection day.
  • Keep the lid closed at all times and place in a shaded area.

Have more questions? The city has a great FAQ online at

CORRECTION: This story originally contained incorrect information on the use of compostable bags in the bin. The city does allow BPI-certified compostable bags in the bin.

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