Study: Austin needs to pull more recyclables out of waste stream

Updated May 11, 2016

In the city’s first comprehensive look at how much trash it keeps out of landfills, a new study says that Austin diverted an estimated 42 percent of its waste last year, mostly through recycling and composting.

That puts the city behind its goal of diverting 50 percent of all materials by 2015, which is just one step on the path to the ultimate aim of reaching “zero waste,” or keeping nearly all materials out of landfills, by 2040.

Andrew Dobbs, Central Texas program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, said he was “dreading a little bit” the release of the study — but the diversion rate wasn’t as low as he feared.

“I think it could have been a lot worse,” Dobbs said. “Knowing what we do about other cities in Texas, (42 percent) indicates we’re already doing some good stuff, that we’ve got some of the basics covered, and now we can reach and do more.”

The city last year released the diversion rate — 38 percent — for its residential customers, which are single-family homes and small multifamily properties.

That number doesn’t include most apartments, condominium complexes or commercial properties, which are typically served by private companies and estimated to generate more than 85 percent of all materials in the city.

To get quantitative information about those properties, the study looked at data provided by licensed private haulers and reports some properties have to submit under a city ordinance that will require all commercial and multifamily properties to recycle by Oct. 1, 2017, among other things. This data was self-reported and incomplete, the study said.

“I’m not 100 percent convinced that those are accurate numbers, but it’s all we have to go by today,” said Gerry Acuna, who chairs the city’s Zero Waste Advisory Commission. “It literally gives us something to strive for, aspire to in the future.”

The study also gathered qualitative information by surveying businesses, sorting samples from facilities that generate a lot of materials and deploying two teams that were charged with observing at least 50 trash and recycling containers per day.

Of those trash receptacles, about 70 percent contained visible recyclables, mostly “cardboard, mixed paper and hard plastics,” the report said.

“Each of these materials are accepted at local recycling facilities serving the Austin area, indicating an opportunity to further educate businesses and multifamily residents about materials accepted at recycling facilities,” the study said.

As of press time, the city had not responded to a list of written questions, including how much it paid CB&I Environmental and Infrastructure Inc. for the study.