Travis County works to address lack of recycling receptacles at 26 area parks

Image description
Travis County working to address lack of recycling at 26 area parks
Image description
Travis County working to address lack of recycling at 26 area parks
Image description
Travis County working to address lack of recycling at 26 area parks

Only six of 26 parks managed by Travis County have recycling receptacles, and many of those bins are dated and in need of replacement, said Shaun Auckland, conservation coordinator for the county.

“Implementing a robust recycling program and educating the public on what can and can’t be recycled is substantial for us to be able to reach  our 90 percent zero-waste goal,” Auckland said.

The county joined the city of Austin in 2014 with the goal of diverting at least 90 percent of discarded materials from landfills by 2040. To reach this goal Travis County created a Green Team that has helped increase the diversion rate of the waste produced by the county from 5 percent to 34 percent, Auckland said. The county also purchased recycling and trash containers for public spaces at county facilities in 2016.

However, nearly 3 out of every 4 county-maintained parks do not provide recycling options. With 500,000 annual visitors to parks in the western part of the county alone, few options exist to recycle materials at the parks, said Timothy Speyrer, Travis County Parks district manager.

Resident Joan Quenan said it is difficult to recycle in many county parks.

“I usually have to take my stuff home to recycle it, which most people won’t bother doing,” said Quenan, who often utilizes hiking trails at several county parks. “We should be teaching people how to recycle by having it readily available in the parks.”

Rethinking recycling

Public access to recycling services sends the message that recycling is something one should always do, said Andrew Dobbs, Texas Campaign for the Environment Central Texas program director and legislative director.

“It takes [recycling] from this luxury process or something that’s a nice thing to do to a basic service done because it’s the responsible thing to do,” Dobbs said. “It shouldn’t be a moral behavior or cultural touchstone. Recycling is the basic way of handling materials that still have valuable life left in them.” 

Recycling can also have a positive impact on the economy, according to a 2015 study done by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

During each stage of the process, from collection to manufacturing, economic activity is generated in the form of employment and workers’ wages, the report states.

However, when a person goes to a government facility—whether a park, office building or other center for services—and recycling receptacles are not available, this reinforces the idea that throwing materials into a landfill is an appropriate step to take, when in actuality it is a waste of energy and resources, Dobbs said.

As someone who works with government entities on environmental issues, Dobbs said it did not surprise him that  only 23 percent of the county’s parks have recycling.

An unfortunate reality in Texas is that landfill disposal of waste is cheaper and easier than recycling, which has not been a priority for waste management, Dobbs said. 

“It’s a long-term struggle,” he said. “But the county is looking to change and clearly asking the right questions.”

Addressing the issue

As a first step in providing more recycling options, the county is collecting data using a geographic information system, or GIS, application. The “Collector” app keeps track of containers and production of waste at parks. To date 13 county parks are mapped, Speyrer said.

“We are using the GIS information to look at how many trash cans and recycling receptacles are in the park, if we’re missing certain areas and if we have enough receptacles,” Speyrer said. “From that data, we will develop a waste management plan to address this moving forward.”

Auckland said county staff will start the process of creating the solid-waste management plan in January. The plan will outline anticipated costs and provide a suggested timeline to expand recycling services, remove substandard containers, and implement uniform signage to designate waste and recycling receptacles.

Improving recycling services and waste management across all the county-maintained parks will likely happen in phases, she said.

Taking inventory is just one element of the conversation. The county is also exploring different types of containers for proper disposal of both trash and recyclables.

“It’s not just a matter of going out and buying a Rubbermaid trash can,” Speyrer said. “These durable, weather-resistant containers are not cheap. We are piloting a few different types to determine what is the most durable and works the best.”

In flood-prone locations concrete containers are less likely to be whisked away in floodwaters, Auckland said. For sports complexes and other parks with flat, open fields, the county is researching sturdy but easily-relocated bins. Wooded parks need containers that can prevent animals from getting inside the bins, she said.

The county has ordered several new models of “twin bin” containers that pair recycling on one side and trash on the other. This side-by-side pairing promotes proper placement of both waste and recyclables and reduces potential misplacement of the different materials, Speyrer said.

“We are aware of human nature,” he said. “It has to be easy to recycle, or people won’t do it.”

Consistent, uniform signage in English and Spanish that includes clear illustrations is another aim of the county’s  recycling effort. Without clearly depicting which materials can and cannot be diverted from the landfill, recycling efforts could still fall short, Auckland said.

“There has to be a substantial amount of education for the public and [parks]staff in order to have successful buy-in,” she said.

One park alone can have 100 or more units, Speyrer said. Twin bins can range from $642 to upwards of $1,000 each. This adds up quickly when implementing a new program in 26 public parks.

Why recycle?

Resident David Mack Endres said it would be great for the county to provide more recycling containers in the parks, but he doubted the recycle stream would be very clean.

“Many people disregard the need to segregate [recyclables],” he said. “If [the county] could provide true single-stream recycling for everything but organic waste, it might be useful.”

Harry Cleaver, an associate professor of economics at The University of Texas at Austin, said he wondered why so few parks offered recycling bins.

“If containers can be made available to every resident, why not to the parks?” Cleaver said.

Determining how to prioritize recycling in county parks depends on where funds would come from, he said, adding he wondered if new taxes would be levied to fund recycling efforts.

Dobbs said it is important to remember when throwing trash away, there is actually no such place as away.

“When trash is thrown away, it is actually being sent to someone’s neighborhood,” Dobbs said. “A lot of our landfill stuff goes to low-income communities— places where people are vulnerable to the harmful impacts of waste.”

With landfills come associated odor, noise, vermin and other issues, Dobbs said.

“It’s important we minimize what we discard,” he said. “If we recycled everything, we wouldn’t need the landfills.”

By Taylor Jackson Buchanan
Taylor Buchanan joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2018 after completing a master of journalism degree from the University of Texas. She worked as the senior reporter for Community Impact's Southwest Austin edition and is now the editor for the company's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition.


The 6.5-mile project will be an important connection for the pedestrian, bicycle and transit networks, according to city officials. (Courtesy Austin Public Works)
City of Austin begins design of urban trail on abandoned rail corridor

The city, along with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, won a state award for a Bergstrom Spur Trail study.

Consuelo Mendez Middle School has consistently received poor ratings from the Texas Education Agency. (Community Impact Newspaper)
CI TEXAS ROUNDUP: State could take over AISD school board if poorly-rated campus does not improve; new furniture store to open in McKinney and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas in Texas as of Dec. 3.

Derrick Chubbs is leaving Austin for a food bank in Florida. (Courtsey Central Texas Food Bank)
Central Texas Food Bank CEO Derrick Chubbs steps down

Derrick Chubbs is leaving Austin for a food bank in Florida.

Consuelo Mendez Middle School has consistently received poor ratings from the Texas Education Agency. (Community Impact Newspaper)
State could take over AISD school board if poorly rated campus does not improve next year

If the school does receive an improved rating, the state's commissioner of education could replace every member of Austin ISD's school board.

Austin ISD trustee Noelita Lugo argues for breaking down student achievement measures by race in the district's 2021-2026 scorecard, rather than examining only economically disadvantaged students without racial groups. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin ISD considers how to measure equity gaps in academic achievement

Austin ISD trustees are continuing to work out details of the 2021-2026 district scorecard, which measures progress on equity goals.

Austin City Council made changes to arts and library funding among other decisions Dec. 2. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin City Hall notebook: Arts community, homeless health care program get funding, plus other actions

City Council approved more than 50 items Dec. 2, changing the Office of Civil Rights, doling out funding and more.

Council Member Greg Casar speaks at a press conference outside City Hall ahead of a vote to approve an ordinance granting the Austin Office of Civil Rights enforcement power. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Office of Civil Rights granted new powers

An ordinance passed by Austin City Council on Dec. 2 creates additional civil and criminal penalties for discrimination.

The school board will consider whether to call a special election to fill the vacancy or make an appointment. (Zara Flores/Community Impact Newspaper)
CI TEXAS ROUNDUP: Hays CISD to hold special meeting on resignation of board member; Montgomery approves plan for downtown and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas in Texas as of Dec. 2.

The existing gallery location on South Lamar Boulevard will close on Dec. 20. (Courtesy Ao5 Gallery)
Ao5 Gallery relocating from South Austin to The Arboretum this winter

With the relocation to Northwest Austin, Ao5 Gallery will expand its custom framing services, have better parking, be able to display more art and be able to accommodate more guests for live events, according to officials with the gallery.

Rendering of Tesla's Cybertruck
Tesla officially names Texas gigafactory as its new headquarters

A U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing shows the Travis County manufacturing plant as Tesla's new home base.

The state and the city of Austin had already exhausted rental assistance funding from the federal program. (Benton Graham/Community Impact Newspaper)
Travis County hits pause on rental assistance applications as federal dollars dry up

With surging demand and the scheduled eviction moratorium expiring in December, Travis County is facing a possible shortfall in Emergency Rental Assistance Program funding.