Is Austin’s goal of sustainability sustainable? The city aims to be zero-waste by 2040—meaning 90 percent of discarded materials will be either recycled or composted and not sent to landfills—yet 80 percent of the items at city landfills could have been recycled or composted, according to a 2015 study.
Though, business community members and environmental advocates alike seem to agree that Austin is making strides toward a target that seemed high to some at the time of its adoption in 2009—when the city became the first in Texas to adopt such a strategy.
The four-year phase-in of the city’s ordinance requiring commercial properties—including schools, medical facilities and businesses, in addition to apartments and condominiums—to provide recycling services is set to be complete Oct. 1.
Although Austin still has a long way to go to meet its zero-waste goal, the general manager of Austin’s largest processor of recyclables said the doubling of its workforce and continued investment in its far East Austin facility stand as evidence of the progress made.
“This is not an easy task we set ourselves at, and it’s one that I think we are as a company very much in partnership with the city on,” Balcones Resources General Manager Joaquin Mariel said.
When the last phase of the recycling ordinance rolls out Oct. 1, all multifamily and nonresidential commercial properties will be required to provide tenants and employees with convenient access to recycling services.
The municipal law, which has been implemented gradually since 2013, mandates that affected properties provide the following: sufficient recycling capacity; convenient access to recycling services; recycling services for such items as paper, plastics Nos. 1 and 2, aluminum, glass and cardboard; bilingual recycling education and informational container signs; and online submission of an annual diversion plan.
Single-family homes, where the ordinance does not apply, receive curbside recycling collection through the city.
Failure to abide by any of the five guidelines can result in a fine between $200 and $2,000 per deficiency, per day.
On the flip side, commercial properties are offered rebates and other incentives to invest in recycling and composting equipment.
Melissa Vogt heads the diversion efforts at The Vortex, a complex on Manor Road that comprises a stage-production theater, The Butterfly Bar and Italian food truck Patrizi’s.
The Vortex has been recycling since it was incorporated in 1988, Vogt said. Back then she said the theater company’s artistic director used to load up The Vortex’s recyclables and take them to the facility.
Now the burden on recycling enthusiasts has eased with recycling pickup available through the city’s contractors, such as Texas Disposal Services.
Last year The Vortex began discussing composting materials. The company ended up receiving $1,000 go to toward setting up that service.
The business switched from plastic to compostable straws at its bar, and Patrizi’s now uses all compostable items, including napkins and utensils.
The Vortex is not 100 percent zero-waste—the theater company uses some materials in the construction of its sets that cannot be composted or recycled.
“We definitely downsized what’s going in the landfill,” Vogt said.
Mariel said early recycling adopters can be found throughout the small-business community in Austin.
“Many of our local small businesses have been engaged in the recycling process,” he said. “Because they believe in that—it’s part of their business mission—and because they understood the [return on investment]a long time ago.
“When you reduce the amount of space you’ve dedicated to landfill [waste]and offset that with space dedicated to recycling there is … a financial balance that happens there.”
Understanding waste behaviors
The city’s zero-waste advocates are not the average Austinite, however, and staff members at the city’s department overseeing recycling services—Austin Resource Recovery—have been working with so-called innovation fellows to explore locals’ behaviors when it comes to material waste. The fellows are designers and developers hired to bring tech sector-style solutions to the public sector.
Ron Neumond, waste diversion planner with ARR, said the project was aimed at drilling into the “why” behind Austin’s numbers—why, for example, did residents send to landfills more than a third of organics that could have been composted?
“We decided it would be best to understand people’s perceptions of recycling first-hand,” Neumond said.
ARR staff, along with the innovation fellows, hit the streets to have “casual conversations” with residents about recycling and were walked through mock dinners in which respondents showed the researchers how they dispose of their food and other waste after eating. The overall 50 conversations helped the team identify some common threads.
The team concluded there are four factors in determining whether and how a resident recycles and composts: motivation, ability, knowledge and discovery.
Further, the researchers broke down their respondents into five types: enthusiasts, lone recyclers in a household, people who struggle to make ends meet and cannot prioritize recycling, the well-intentioned—but perhaps not informed—group, and the analysts or skeptics who do not trust their recycling is going to the right place.
“This research really did change our conversations with people,” Neumond said, adding those interactions now center on improving residents’ diversion efforts rather than quizzing them.
In response to these discoveries, ARR has changed its messaging. Any educational materials must now address one of the areas of its new framework for understanding recycling behaviors. The team has also rolled out an interactive way to teach the recycling dos and don’ts—a board game in which players sort items for recycling, composting, hazardous waste and donations.
“We can already see that people are more excited about recycling—that they’re more comfortable with the topic,” he said.
Progress and future monitoring
The Texas Campaign for the Environment has done independent monitoring to see how Austin businesses and apartment complexes are complying with the universal recycling ordinance.
Program Director Andrew Dobbs said from what his organization has seen the ordinance has been a success.
When the ordinance was introduced in 2013, Dobbs said hardly any of the businesses and multifamily complexes were filing an annual diversion plan, as required by the ordinance, or they were self-reporting that they would not be complying with regulations. Also known as a recycling plan, the document details such things as the types of material—and how much of it—the property plans to divert.
Dobbs said there has been a “big shift” since then, and a majority of properties are now reporting compliance. Further, he said volunteers have dropped in on businesses and apartment complexes and found most are following the rules.
“There are still big gaps that need to be filled and it will be an ongoing project, but we have the foundation and framework we need to make sure all businesses in the city of Austin are recycling and diverting materials through composting,” Dobbs said.
The next true measure of the city’s progress toward its zero-waste goal will come in 2020—when the latest diversion study is slated to be released.