AUSTIN, TEXAS, HAS LONG BEEN CONSIDERED THE JEWEL of the Friendship State. Nestled smack in the middle of the biggest state in the continental United States, the city is Texas's cultural bedrock and a popular tourist destination. Austin is the second-fastest growing city in the nation and ranks as the fourth most-visited city in Texas. In keeping with Austin's attractive character, the city Solid Waste Services Department (SWSD) makes waste management and recycling a priority while responding to the recent population boom.
SWSD manages the trash generated by Austin's more than 680,000 residents and additional 7 million annual visitors, picking up approximately 122,469 tons of garbage, according to the last count in fiscal year 2004. Although the city comprises only about a quarter of Travis County's 989 square miles, its population accounts for about 80 percent of the county. SWSD manages the waste generated by Austin's single-family residents, while five major contractors and about 20 independent contractors handle commercial and construction and demolition (C&D) waste.
To deal with Austin's growing population, the Capital Area Council of Governments says the city must continue to develop its recycling management program and educate residents on efficient waste disposal. Goals include developing a household hazardous waste (HHW) collection program, curtailing illegal dumping and diverting waste for recycling.
Solid Home Service
Austin's population is on the rise. The city's population has increased 41 percent since 1990, and it grew by more than 25,000 people from 2000 to 2004. SWSD responds to additional waste management needs through steady increases in operations. According to the city, SWSD handled 152,869 households during the 2003-2004 fiscal year. From those homes, the department gathered 171,254 tons of waste in curbside collections, which include garbage, recycling and yard trimmings.
“[A] challenge [we face] is continuing to control our cost in order that we can hold our rates at competitive levels while still providing high quality service to our customers,” says William E. Rhodes, director of solid waste services.
To deal with the increasing loads, SWSD has moved collection start times up an hour to 6:30 a.m., says Jerry Hendrix, public information administrator. “It gets our trucks to the routes quicker, keeps us out of traffic, and reduces our overtime and fuel expense from sitting idle in traffic. It also keeps our workers out of the heat in the summertime.”
Currently, the department collects garbage from nearly 30,000 homes daily using 68 garbage trucks — 37 are semi-automatic and 31 are fully automatic. Sixty-three of the trucks are made by Crane Carrier Co. Of those, 16 are semi-automatic trucks with Leach Co. bodies, 16 are semi-automatic trucks with Pak-Mor Ltd. bodies, 27 are automatic trucks with Wayne Engineering Corp. bodies and four are automatic trucks with Heil Environmental bodies. Five additional semi-automatic UD Trucks with Wayne bodies also help to service customers.
Hendrix says about 25 more trucks are used for recycling and 15 for yard trimmings. SWSD also collects many bulk items in specially scheduled curbside collections and recycles more than 10 percent of the material.
Meanwhile, a work group within SWSD monitors Austin's population growth and adds additional truck routes as they are needed.
The Road to Recycling
SWSD services households with a pay-as-you-throw program (PAYT) in which customers choose the size of their garbage cart to meet their needs; the smaller the cart, the smaller their garbage bill. This creates an incentive for households to recycle because recyclables and yard trimmings are picked up from residents once per week at no charge.
Introduced in 1991, PAYT has reduced Austin's garbage by almost 10 percent (despite a 27 percent increase in the number of customers) and nearly tripled the recycling rate from 9.8 percent in 1991 to 28.5 percent in 2003, according to the department.
As the city's population grows, Austin's goal is simply: “to recycle as much as we can,” Hendrix says. The city focuses on maintaining its current diversion rate of 28 percent. The rate has not varied more than 1 percentage point during the past six years, although the number of households SWSD serves has increased by more than 8,000 residences in the past two fiscal years, he says.
In addition, SWSD has implemented other programs to educate people of all ages about recycling and making environmental concerns a priority. Among the outreach programs are:
Volunteer “block leaders,” who talk to their neighbors and hand out literature about recycling;
A musical, called “The Captain Can Show,” that tours local schools to teach children about recycling;
Organized landfill tours;
The Waste Reduction Assistance Program (WRAP), which provides free consulting to local businesses that want to reduce their waste and associated waste management costs; and
The Austin Computer Recycling Program, which provides drop-off and home pickup of electronic waste (e-waste) so that it can be recycled through Goodwill of Central Texas.
Such programs show SWSD's willingness to take steps for environmental quality. “[We uphold] our commitment to environmental stewardship by helping our customers continue to reduce our municipal waste stream and thus preserving our natural resources and keeping our environment clean,” Rhodes says.
From Refuse to Reuse
When SWSD collection crews pickup recyclables from residents, paper is segregated at the curb in dual-hopper trucks. The paper is collected in one hopper while the other commingled materials are collected in the other. Materials then are taken to the SWSD materials recovery facility (MRF) in Austin.
The facility handles more than 36,000 tons a year, or about 120 tons per day, and accepts glass bottles, three grades of plastic bottles, aluminum and steel cans, newspapers, magazines, junk mail and home office paper.
At the MRF, paper is tipped onto the tipping floor, baled and pushed into trailers for transport to Abitibi-Consolidated, which has a processing plant in San Antonio. Other materials are sorted by an eddy current separator for aluminum cans, a magnet system for other metals and an air classifier for heavy and light components. Plastics are sorted by hand.
Metals are separated and processed into bales at the facility, and then sold locally to Commercial Metals.
Glass is ground in a pulverizer at the facility and sent to the City of Austin Landfill or a landfill owned by Texas Disposal Systems (TDS), Creedmoor, Texas, both of which use the pulverized glass for road- and wet-weather area repair.
SWSD Diversion Services Manager Bob Fernandez says the plastic market fluctuates daily, so rather than sell the materials under a long-term contract, nine companies compete to receive each of the three different plastic grades every month.
The nonprofit Ecology Action operates another recycling outlet, providing free recycling drop-off centers in Downtown and North Austin. Two rural drop-offs, each about 30 miles north of Austin, accept most recyclable materials except cardboard, Pyrex, mirrors and windowpanes. Ecology Action's own trucks bring the materials to its drop-off and processing center in Downtown Austin, where the materials are baled and sold to keep the organization running. Last year, Ecology Action diverted nearly 2,000 tons of waste and saved 3,285 cubic yards of landfill space, according to Co-director Dee Dennis.
According to Rhodes, SWSD will switch to single-stream recycling in the next two to three years, in hopes of adding more materials to the city's recycling mix and to take advantage of automated technology that could reduce worker injury. The department also is exploring the use of alternatively fueled trucks to keep recycling truck emissions to a minimum.
In the commercial sector, a city ordinance says businesses with 100 or more employees must recycle at least two of the following: aluminum cans, tin/steel cans, glass containers, plastic containers, newspaper, mixed office paper or cardboard. The same ordinance calls for apartments and multi-family communities with 100 or more tenants to recycle four of the same materials. To date, 350 multi-family complexes and 288 businesses in Austin are complying with the ordinance to recycle more than 50,000 tons of material annually.
Businesses typically hire private garbage haulers, although SWSD collects garbage from Austin's Central Business District and from some businesses in residential areas. SWSD's Waste Diversion Planner Katherine Murray points to Central Texas Refuse, TDS, Browning-Ferris Industries (owned by Allied Waste Industries), Waste Management Inc. (WM) and IESI as the major commercial providers in the city. About 20 independent haulers also work out of Austin, bringing commercial waste to Allied's, WM's or TDS's landfills.
Headed for Disposal
The bulk of Austin's waste is trucked to the TDS landfill in southeast Austin, which has a 30-year contract to accept 67 percent of the city's residential garbage. However, the landfill actually accepts 100 percent of the city's residential waste despite not being contractually obliged to do so.
“We have a great relationship with the city,” says Bob Gregory, president and principal owner of TDS. TDS' facilities include a 30-acre composting operation, approximately 18 acres of which are used as compost pad surfaces and grinding and soil blend areas; an industrial park; and an exotic game ranch with 1,500-plus animals.
Dennis Hobbs, TDS' special project manager, says his company began taking in all of the city's residential waste when the city's contract with BFI expired. Of the 2.07 million tons of waste produced in Travis County in 2003, 563,170 tons, or 27 percent, was disposed of in TDS' landfill. BFI/Allied received 820,234 tons of the waste at its landfill in 2003, accounting for most of the remaining residential waste in Travis County.
Travis County itself operates five landfills that accept waste from Austin and other areas. The facilities collected 616,491 tons of commercial waste and 442,814 tons of C&D debris in 2003. Another 315,757 tons, or half, of the commercial waste from Travis County is sent to Allied Waste's landfill. While C&D waste is disposed of at the county's five landfills, IESI receives the most C&D waste (195,911 tons in 2003), according to SWSD.
The City of Austin Landfill, owned and operated by the city, is a Type IV landfill that accepts C&D waste, as well as some household waste. A diversion center, located on the landfill grounds, accepts car batteries, aluminum cans, large metal items and appliances other than microwaves and televisions, free of charge. The landfill does not accept hazardous or putrescible waste, such as food waste or household garbage.
In May 2005, Austin Business Journal reported that the two largest landfills in Travis County, Allied's and WM's, must relocate within 10 years. BFI/Allied's site manages about 3,300 tons of waste daily, while WM's landfill processes about 2,000 tons daily. WM's landfill currently takes in about a quarter of the county's commercial C&D and residential waste (466,547 tons last year). While the BFI and WM locations had previously taken up about 300 acres, both companies are seeking new locations that span more than 1,000 acres. Hendrix says the county is negotiating with the companies, and the target move date is 2015.
Nevertheless, the city is not concerned about disposal capacity. TDS's facility has more than 23 million tons, or 81 percent of its capacity, remaining. At its current rate of waste acceptance, TDS could last more than 30 years, according to the company. IESI's facility has 69 percent of its capacity remaining, while the largest landfill, owned by Allied, has 35 percent of its capacity remaining. WM's landfill in Austin has 31 percent capacity remaining. And although the City of Austin Landfill only has 22 percent of its capacity remaining, it took in only 23,400 tons in the past fiscal year — less than any other Travis County landfill.
Honing in on Hazards
While capacity is somewhat manageable, the city and county must deal with less controllable problems, such as illegal dumping of HHW. Currently, residents of Austin and Travis County can bring up to 30 gallons to the HHW Facility in Austin. The facility accepts waste not meant to be thrown in the regular trash like batteries, motor oil and computers. The facility also provides small businesses generating less than 220 pounds of hazwaste per month with an opportunity to dispose of it at a lower-than-usual cost.
Based in part on SWSD's efforts, Austin was ranked as one of America's Cleanest City by Reader's Digest and one of the 10 Greenest Cities by Vegetarian Times. Yet the Capital Area Council of Governments is striving higher.
The Council wants to develop and manage a HHW diversion plan, provide community cleanup events with alternatives to illegal dumping, and encourage recycling of C&D and yard waste. Long-term, the council wants to add incentives to increase the recycling rate to 40 percent over the next 11 to 20 years.
Whether they resort to implementing incentives, more education or new waste management programs to control garbage, Austin and Travis County are committed to boosting waste education — and waste reduction.
Billy Gil is a contributing writer based in Chicago.
HOT, HOT HEAT
Austin's not just a place for hot musicians to hone their skills — it is hot, period, providing challenges for waste managers. Austin sees about 300 days of sunshine a year, with occasional extreme heat.
“Our biggest challenge and obligation is keeping our workers safe from the hazards that are inherent in the solid waste industry,” Rhodes says.
Consequently, SWSD workers are required to attend monthly safety meetings designed to keep them updated on any conditions or policies regarding operations. Those meetings also provide information on how to better condition their bodies to handle such hazards as extreme weather through proper diet and exercise. Topics such as proper lifting, vehicle inspection and maintenance, protective equipment, and how to recognize and report possible safety issues are addressed as well.
“We encourage our workers to take breaks throughout the day and to keep plenty of water and/or sports drinks in their vehicles,” Hendrix says. The department provides coolers and drinks for its workers to help avoid dehydration.