The news is out: Austin’s recycling rates have stalled. Despite education initiatives by the city, our diversion rate has stayed at about 40 percent for years. Something different has to be done — and some of us are wondering if now is the time to start requiring recycling.
If you read Andra Lim’s article on this problem you know that my organization — Texas Campaign for the Environment — is in favor of such a requirement, but there is an important word Andra used right before she quoted me: “Ultimately.” It means “in the last place,” and right now we stand with all of the zero-waste supporters quoted by Andra in saying that Austin has some options we should pursue before making a recycling requirement our top priority.
Imposing mandatory recycling on Austin today would be, in some ways, unfair. Many are confused about recycling. We have been taught to throw waste away, and that we should put it on the curb where it will disappear, never to bother us again. In truth, it gets trucked to someone else’s community — where it becomes their problem — but the easiest way to get responsible people to make such an irresponsible decision is to tell them not to think about it.
Successful recycling, on the other hand, happens when residents know what recycling actually is — the marketing of our discards as commodities — and how the facilities here do their part. This makes sense of all the rules associated with the blue cart, but our educational efforts are still just chipping away at the massive edifice of a waste culture that has taught us to be willfully ignorant about where our discards go.
In the past, new programs have increased recycling the most, not education. When Austin went from dual-stream recycling to single-stream, our recycling rate shot from 30 percent to 36 percent in a matter of months — and it didn’t take much longer to get to our current 40 percent.
We hope to see a big jump with the introduction of curbside composting citywide. This third bin will let Austin residents divert materials they have mostly been trashing to this point: food scraps, food soiled paper, greasy pizza boxes, and other valuable organic material. We expect that this will move our diversion rate over 50 percent and get us back on track towards our zero-waste goals.
This is a good reason to roll out this program as quickly as possible — by 2018 or sooner, not 2020, as Austin Resource Recovery is currently suggesting. These new programs, of course, require education efforts, and the city’s pilot program for organics collection provides a great example of what works best. It’s something familiar to Texas Campaign for the Environment: door-to-door canvassing. In the city’s pilot program the neighborhoods where Austin Resource Recovery went door-to-door to explain the carts had the highest participation rates. A cute jingle or cool-looking flier is useful, but nothing works like direct human interaction right where people live. Austin needs to invest in this for both our upcoming organics program and for recycling.
In the end, that word “ultimately” not only shows us where recycling mandates belong, but also should remind us of the ultimate big picture we are facing here.
Recycling, composting and other diversion programs are not just nice things; they are necessary for the health of our community. As we are starting to see with rare earth metals, you can only extract materials from one place to be buried again in a landfill somewhere else for so long; sooner or later you run out of resources. We will all have to recycle sooner or later; thankfully, Austin Resource Recovery has taken the initiative to conserve our resources and reduce our dependence on landfills before a crisis forces our hand. Ultimately, recycling is already necessary for our safety, prosperity, and health, but with some continued leadership, it may not have to be required for a little longer.
Schneider is the executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment & TCE Fund.