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Austin’s Trash Department Trying To Reach Zero-Waste Goal by 2030

“Austin is going to be the No. 1 leader in the country at treating garbage as a resource and not something we just bury in the ground.” Read more on Statesman.com.

For decades, the focus of Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department has been collecting trash from the curbs of Austin homes and putting it in landfills.

But in the past few years, with an energetic new director at the helm, the department has shifted to a new way of thinking, captured in a long-term plan the City Council will discuss Thursday and vote on soon.

The plan is a blueprint for how Austin can do much more to “reduce, reuse and recycle” over the next few decades — viewing trash as an asset and extracting as much use and value as possible from the things people normally throw away.

The shift in focus is exemplified by the department’s new name: Austin Resource Recovery .

Among other things, the plan envisions: a new curbside collection program for compostable goods such as food scraps, weekly instead of biweekly collection of recyclables, “eco-depots” around town where residents can drop off items that can be reused or repaired, an eco-industrial park of green businesses at a former city landfill and a new billing structure to encourage Austinites to recycle more and trash less.

“This plan says Austin is going to be the No. 1 leader in the country at treating garbage as a resource and not something we just bury in the ground,” said Rick Cofer , vice chairman of the city commission that reviews trash and recycling issues . “There is very little that we call trash that couldn’t have a secondary use or secondary market. So now the department’s job is to turn this valuable resource into opportunities and jobs.”

Making the vision a reality won’t be cheap. Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert estimates it will cost an extra $4 million to $9 million a year for the next decade to carry out the plan.

But Gedert notes that those figures are preliminary and don’t factor in the savings that could result from such things as making trash and recycling collection routes more efficient. The department’s budget is $84.2 million this year.

The plan has been in the works for 18 months. The city hired the company HDR Engineering Inc. for $1.2 million to do preliminary research and work on the plan, Gedert said, and he and his staff wrote the final document.

The city is trying to reach a so-called zero waste goal by 2040 to send less than 10 percent of the trash generated in Austin to landfills and to reuse, recycle or compost the rest.

Currently more than 60 percent of Austin’s trash, or about 138,000 tons, ends up in landfills each year, and the city pays to bury it by the ton.

Gedert, who became head of the department last year and whose license plate reads “Zero Waste,” said he intends for Austin to reach the zero waste goal a decade early, by 2030 — the year he aims to retire — and that the plan is a road map to get there.

Adding to recycle bin

The city started a program in 2008 that allows owners or renters of single-family homes to put all their recyclables, unsorted, in big curbside carts. Gedert recently signed deals with two local firms to sort and process those goods well into the future.

In the next few years, Gedert wants to add more goods — such as durable plastics, aluminum foil and small scrap metal items — to the recyclables accepted at the curb.

Austin already collects yard trimmings at the curb and turns them into Dillo Dirt at a city facility. But the plan calls for starting a program in 2015 to collect more organic goods — food scraps, yard trimmings and untreated wood — at the curb in a cart separate from recyclables. The city would compost those goods or hire a company to do so.

Currently, organic materials make up more than 40 percent of the trash Austin sends to landfills. That means a lot of material that could have another life as rich soil is going to waste, Gedert said.

The city collects recyclables every two weeks and trash carts once a week, but Gedert wants to swap those schedules about 2016 — in the hope that if Austinites are recycling and composting more, they’ll have less trash that can be hauled away less often.

The city also plans to add a second location, in North Austin , where residents can drop off hazardous items such as paint, cleaners, batteries and pesticides for the department to dispose of properly. The current location is in South Austin .

Aiming to make reuse simpler, Gedert wants to set up four “eco-depots” run by nonprofits where residents could drop off or take items that could be reused or repaired, such as furniture and toys, and creating a resource center where people could bring goods suitable for classrooms that teachers could retrieve for free.

Local outlets sought

The City of Austin collects only about a quarter of the trash generated in the city limits. Most of the rest — from apartments, condos, stores, offices and restaurants — is handled and put in landfills by private haulers.

The city currently requires large offices and apartment complexes to recycle only a few materials. But starting next fall , under changes already approved by the City Council, more commercial and multifamily properties will have to start or beef up their recycling programs, which should go a long way toward keeping goods out of landfills, Gedert said.

Currently, the city bundles trash and recycling services into one charge on the city bill. Austin homeowners pay a base rate and a rate for whichever trash cart they use — 32, 64 or 96 gallons. (A 21 -gallon option will be added this year or next.)

But, under that structure, people who throw out the most actually pay less per gallon than those who trash the least.

The plan calls for scrapping that approach and replacing it as early as next fall with a per-gallon fee that would result in bigger gaps in the cost of each cart, which he hopes will compel Austinites to recycle more.

“It would stratify the rates more and perhaps motivate our large wasters to downscale their trash,” Gedert said.

Many of the recyclables collected by Austin and other cities are sorted, baled and then sent to far-flung places to be made into other products.

Gedert would like to see more so-called green businesses open here — from small repair shops to large manufacturing companies — and believes that more reuse, recycling and composting locally will create a demand and a market for those businesses.

He wants to add a position to the city’s economic development office to recruit such businesses to Austin.

Gedert also would like to sell small parcels at a 360 -acre former city landfill on FM 812 to businesses that satisfy a step in the recycling or reuse process, such as a glass processor or a tire shredder.

“Traditionally, towns put (recyclables) in a truck and send it offshore. That means the value is realized elsewhere,” said JD Porter , a former longtime member of the city’s trash and recycling commission , who owns a computer reuse and recycling business. “Keeping it local would change the whole process.”

scoppola@statesman.com; 912-2939

Per-gallon rates seen as reducing waste

Austin homeowners currently pay a base rate for trash and recycling services, plus a rate for whatever size trash cart they use: 32, 64 or 96 gallons. (A 21-gallon option will be added this year or next.)

Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert wants to replace those rates with a per-gallon fee, based on the size of the trash cart.

Gedert has estimated rates for the next few years but notes that they’re preliminary and would have to be approved by the City Council each year.

(These rates do not include a $5 anti-litter fee that Gedert proposes increasing to $6 in the 2012-13 budget year.)

 

Trash cart size Current rate 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15

21 gallons $4.00 $8.19 $9.04 $9.73

32 gallons $13.50 $12.48 $13.77 $14.82

64 gallons $18.75 $24.96 $27.54 $29.65

96 gallons $30.95 $37.44 $41.31 $44.47

Plan highlights

New weekly curbside collection program for compostable goods (food scraps).

‘Eco-depots’ around town where residents can drop off reusable, recyclable or repairable items.

An eco-industrial park of (private) green businesses at a former city landfill.

New per-gallon billing structure aimed at encouraging Austinites to recycle more and throw out less.

Goals

Currently to reach ‘zero waste’ by 2040.

Possibly accelerate that to 2030 with this plan.