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In a traditionally progressive city full of “hippies” who claim to recycle, an audit of their trash shows the opposite.
It’s stinking. It’s rotting. It’s growing.
It’s Austin’s landfill.
“As more and more and more people move to Austin, our landfill grows and grows and grows,” said Susanne Harm with Austin Resource Recovery (ARR), the city’s recycling department.
And based on a first-of-its-kind study in Austin, ARR found 44 percent of the trash that ends up in that landfill from curbside pick-up at residents’ households is recyclable. Another 46 percent of that trash could be turned into compost.
“We were actually surprised by the number of recyclables and the breakdown,” said Memi Cardenas, the residential and housing expert at ARR. “Almost a quarter of everything in the trash was paper, and paper is the most easy to recycle material.”
The study also found that 13 percent of the trash was plastic, 4 percent was metal and another 4 percent was glass.
Recycling experts at ARR estimate that 58,000 tons of recyclables go to the landfill each year. Those recyclables could fill the University of Texas Tower 29 times.
Graphic by Santiago Enciso.
Yet 96 percent of Austin homeowners consider themselves recyclers, according to a survey conducted each year by ARR. Which begs the question: Why then, do Austinites – people known for their weirdness and green-ness – not recycle?
Million dollar question: And a million more "answers"
Cardenas answers that question with another question.
“What is each individual citizen resident’s definition of recycling? We also recognize that this is complicated and that they may not be aware that certain things are recyclable," Cardenas said. "For example, last year we made hard plastics recyclable, so that means lawn chairs, children’s toys, etc.”
She also said that based on the contents of their trash, Austinites need to think beyond the kitchen in terms of recycling.
“A lot of things in the bathroom are recyclable – shampoo bottles, the box the soap comes in, toilet paper rolls,” Cardenas said. “And that may be an issue of having more containers in the home.”
Speculation aside, the results of the study were a mystery to Cardenas and her co-workers at ARR. That's why ARR launched an initiative to crowdsource homeowners' concerns about recycling and ideas for getting themselves and their neighbors to improve those numbers.
"Help me help you," Cardenas said. "Shy of going to your house and sorting your recyclables for you, what can we do?"
Over 1,600 participants took part in the initiative through its website or by texting or talking to ARR representatives at outreach events. ARR collected comments from July 27 through Aug. 24. Those responses were then compiled into more than 1,200 ideas and concerns.
In order to leave a comment, the survey required that participants include their zip code. This enabled ARR to target its subsequent outreach and discover what various neighborhoods' needs are.
In neighborhoods that performed well in the study at the beginning of the story, Austinites complained through the initiative that their blue carts overflow with recyclables and should be picked up more frequently. To this, Cardenas said that residents may request an additional bin or place the excess recyclables to the side of the cart at the curb.
On the other end of the spectrum, residents in neighborhoods that did not perform as well in the study seem confused about what materials ARR recycles based on the results of the initiative.
Other participants stressed that ARR needs to take on more creative methods in convincing people to recycle. Many suggested that ARR fine residents who don't recycle correctly or create rewards for neighborhoods that perform better than others.
In September, Cardenas said ARR created solutions and sent responses to each person who participated in the initiative.
The golden ring: Household represent only part of the equation
Homeowners’ trash is just a drop in the bucket that is Austin’s growing landfill.
“The bottom line is businesses produce the majority of the landfill trash. They're just bigger -- there's so many of them,” said Harm, who focuses on that aspect of recycling at ARR. “So they're the big -- the golden ring kind of thing. If we can get every single business to do zero waste -- wow. That would be a huge accomplishment."
To be exact, businesses' waste makes up nearly 75 percent of the landfill. Unfortunately, an audit similar to ARR’s household recycling study does not exist for Austin “businesses,” which ARR defines as apartments and condos, commercial buildings, restaurants and all other businesses.
Harm said a study of just that kind has begun, though. So in the spring of 2016, ARR will know precisely how much Austin businesses recycle.
In the meantime, ARR is in the process of rolling out a Universal Recycling Ordinance, a city-wide recycling requirement that takes effect in stages. Harm said the stages have affected bigger business first, but as more phases are implemented, they trickle down to smaller businesses. On Oct. 1, the ordinance expanded to include businesses with less square footage and less dwellings for housing facilities.
Starting October 2017, all properties throughout Austin must follow the requirements laid out in the ordinance.
“For most businesses, it’s metals, plastics, glass, paper,” Harm said. “You don’t think about it but so many businesses have so much packaging waste. And it can all be reused and diverted from the landfill.”
And of all that waste from each individual business affected by the ordinance, 50 percent must be diverted in some way.
“Not everything can be recycled – if you reuse, compost – that’s diverting from the landfill,” Harm said.
In order to meet the requirements, businesses must have sufficient recycling capacity at a convenient location. They must recycle five different materials and have informational signage in different languages, “So that if you’re, say, a Thai restaurant with Thai-speaking employees,” Harm said. They must also create and submit to ARR an “Annual Diversion Plan” that includes details such as business size and how, specifically, they will divert waste.
Under those requirements, businesses currently affected by the ordinance are at 97 percent compliance, Harm said. But she and others wonder if those requirements translate into compliance by employees and tenants.
“It can be confusing,” Harm said. “You’re standing there and there isn’t a sign and you’re holding the cardboard box that your lunch came in and you wonder, ‘Is this recyclable?’”
It probably is, by the way. But you can go here to see what specifically can and can’t be recycled in Austin.
Getting employees and tenants to comply isn’t the only challenge ARR faces in implementing the ordinance. The businesses themselves may not be equipped initially to take on recycling.
“I think most of the problems are specific to the individual businesses. For example, in an apartment complex, there were complexes that were built many years ago before the idea of zero waste and they have these placements in the parking lot for trash receptacles,” Harm said. “They never thought about recycling back then. And then we come along and tell them they have to install a recycling receptacle next to the trash, where there probably isn’t any space.”
The requirements in the ordinance may also be logistically difficult for a business to meet.
“You have to divert at least five materials,” Harm said. “What if you don’t have five materials? Well, we just work with them and figure out what the percentages would be.”
Or perhaps ARR’s efforts do not reach business owners.
“Maybe English isn’t their first language, or maybe they pay online, so they don’t get inserts with URO information,” Harm said.
She said the bigger businesses, such as Dell Inc. and Seton Healthcare Family, are ahead of the curve. She said recycling and other forms of diversion is already a part of their corporate ideology. For a mom and pop business on the other hand, recycling and composting may not be top priority.
If businesses don’t meet the ordinance’s requirements however, they face a stiff fine of $2,000 per day. Despite that fine, Harm realizes the difficulty in incentivizing businesses to fully embrace recycling and diversion.
“It’s a hard thing to verbalize, because it’s like, ‘Oh, well that’s the right thing to do, right?’ Well of course it is,” Harm said.
In one attempt to incentivize, the city provides a rebate of $1,800 to businesses that either get in compliance early or that go above and beyond the requirements.
How Austin measures up to its neighbors
The City of Austin initially had a goal to keep 50 percent of its trash out of the landfill by December 2015. Currently, however, the city’s residents divert 40 percent of its waste from that landfill. Cardenas -- ARR's housing expert -- said cities frequently plateau at this rate.
Austin may have missed its goal, but compared to the three other biggest cities in Texas, Austin’s recycling program is ahead of the curve.
At this point in time, Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio calculate their diversion rates based on data collected from the residential areas they service. This does not include apartments, condos and other businesses.
The City of Houston diverts 26 percent of its waste from the landfill while San Antonio diverts 30 percent. That diversion rate applies to all waste that is kept from the landfill such as recyclable material and yard trimmings.
When it comes to how much recycling residents throw into their blue bins instead of the landfill, Dallas diverts 19 percent, Houston diverts 15 percent and San Antonio diverts 13 percent. Austin does not calculate its diversion by recycling rate.
Each city varies in the types of materials residents are allowed to recycle. For example, Houston and Dallas allow residents to recycle items such as textiles and mattresses.
Austin’s recycling ordinance does seem to set it apart from its neighbors. Representatives with Houston’s and Dallas’ recycling programs said that a sweeping requirement such as that is not on the agenda. After all, first thing’s first. They are focusing on meeting their goals in getting residences recycling more. San Antonio has discussed implementing such a requirement.
In that regard, Austin may be slightly ahead compared to its neighbors in Texas, but ARR still has a long way to go before reaching its goal of reducing the amount of trash sent to the landfill by 90 percent in 2040.
At ARR, patience is a virtue.
“For the first few years, you’re really changing a culture,” Harm said. “It’s a culture change – zero waste – it’s a philosophy, isn’t it? It’s reuse. When I look at people who lived through the war, like my mom, she doesn’t recycle. She reuses everything. We’ve just become this consumer-driven society.”
Harm envisions a future that some businesses already practice.
in.gredients: A local store that completes the circle with the missing "R"
Past the lush garden and picnic tables and through the doors of what looks like a house-turned-grocery store, fresh produce and health foods such as quinoa, lentils, oils and vinegars line the aisles inside.
It’s a place where East Austin hippies and yuppies converge to rejoice in veggies delivered from local farms and in consciously healthy goods at a hip spot. It's Manor Road’s neighborhood grocer, “in.gredients.”
When in.gredients first opened in 2012, the store was touted by both the owners and local media as a nearly package-less store, where customers were expected to bring their own containers and reusable bags to fill up on free-flowing bulk goods. Initially, package-less goods comprised 70 percent of the store. After 18 months however, the owners cut back to 30 percent package-less goods due to declining sales.
The store looks a little different with the additional packaging, but the mission of the store remains the same, essentially.
“From the beginning we’ve taken the diversion rate to a higher level,” said Josh Blaine, store manager of in.gredients. “We weigh everything that goes into our little trash cart – we average about 5 pounds of trash per month.
Blaine, who also serves on the Austin Zero Waste Alliance and the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, said zero waste represents a way of understanding resource management and how production and disposal works.
“It’s in opposition to the standard or the more common way of looking at resources at this day in age which is very linear – you take something out of the earth as a raw material, you make something with it, you throw it away. Out of sight out of mind,” Blaine said.
The trick is getting consumers to instead “complete the circle” – to think about where those materials are going, he said.
“Zero waste is trying to give an accurate reflection of what actually happens, which is that waste is going somewhere,” he said. “And it’s trying to be more intentional about what happens to materials, not just after use but trying to put things back into use. That’s a big part of zero waste – reuse.”
Think back to middle school environmental studies. What's the missing "R" in this story?
You got it: reduction.
“So just trying to generally dial down the consumption and use of materials in the first place,” Blaine said.
Blaine said in.gredients stands as a beacon for consumers and other businesses in the quest to embrace the zero waste lifestyle.
“That’s where we are excelling,” he said. “But it’s sad that we’re excelling because it’s really not that complicated.”
In making the choice to take “simple, small actions to make a big impact,” Blaine said they’ve gained a following of loyal customers.
“It’s been a fun process to watch how [the store] helps change people’s habits and perspectives,” he said. “There have been a number of folks particularly in the early days who would say, ‘I’ve noticed I’ve stopped taking my recycling cart out to the curb every week or half as much, because I’m just not generating enough recyclable material even.’”
Despite the behavior and actions of the majority, Blaine believes people want to do the right thing. And that is why he thinks businesses facing the city’s recycling ordinance shouldn’t have too much difficulty complying.
“I would assume that businesses that aren’t [diverting] right now probably have employees that are aware of that, particularly with businesses that have a younger workforce. And if you’re a business that is doing things out of expediency and aren’t really paying attention to these things, that probably bothers your employees. If you decide you’re going to start doing this, you might be surprised that you would have employees that would be gung-ho about it.”
But getting customers and employees to change their ways takes a little training.
“Be intelligent and practical about where your bins are and put good signage out there so that especially in the first few months when folks are transitioning, instead of putting everything in the [trash] bin, you give them the tools to succeed,” he said.
He stresses the importance of patience and remaining diligent in enforcing the rules.
“I still spend more time than I should sorting through the trash,” Blaine said.
And when employees or business owners come across a material that is questionable in terms of recyclability, don’t be afraid to reach out to the hauler.
“Use them as a resource. I call Jeff at Break It Down every few months with a question, like, ‘What about this material, what about that material, what’s the industry practice for this?’” he said. “There are [haulers] who take this stuff seriously, and they can be a partner in this.”
If any kind of impact is to be made on that growing landfill, everyone is going to have to partner together on a daily basis to rethink that piece of “trash” in their hand and decide where it really should go. And perhaps even transition into a zero waste mentality.
“I would like to think other cities will look to Austin in the future and say, ‘This is possible, this is how they did it. Let’s follow suit,’” Blaine said.