As the fastest-growing large city in the U.S., Austin Texas attracts 100+ new residents a day. Due to a tight housing market, most of these transplanted Austinites rent apartments, condos or other multifamily units. While curbside recycling is the norm for Austin homeowners, many rental properties don’t yet offer recycling pickup.
At the multifamily properties that do offer recycling, the influx of new residents and frequent turnover leads to contamination issues and a need for ongoing education. In addition, when recycling containers are placed too far away from trash containers, some tenants choose not to participate due to inconvenience.
Despite these challenges, multifamily properties offer enormous potential for achieving Austin’s waste diversion goals. With 734,270 apartment units, multifamily housing makes up about 47 percent of the total housing stock in Austin.
As the director of Austin Resource Recovery (the city of Austin’s trash and recycling department), I’m working to reach a community-wide zero waste goal of diverting more than 90 percent of materials from landfills and incinerators by 2040.
My department directly serves single-family households, while private haulers provide service for multifamily properties. In order to reach zero waste, we as a city must put policies in place that improve the way multifamily properties and their tenants dispose of waste, with adequate access to recycling and composting services.
To meet this challenge head on, the Austin City Council adopted an ordinance that requires commercial and multifamily properties to provide their employees and tenants with convenient access to recycling. This city ordinance, labeled the Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO), phases in recycling access requirements over a series of years. By Oct. 1, 2016, all multifamily properties in Austin will be required to provide recycling services.
Our approach is unique in that we are phasing in the requirements over several years, starting with the largest properties. This gives smaller properties more time to prepare and put infrastructure in place.
To ensure successful implementation, we involved stakeholders early in the ordinance development process. The ordinance impacts all commercial properties, so the Austin Resource Recovery team held a series of stakeholder meetings with a wide variety of industry types, including retail, grocery, healthcare, multifamily and commercial properties, as well as member associations, environmental groups and private haulers. The recommendations that came out of these meetings were included in the ordinance and rules for implementation.
To meet the requirements of the ordinance, multifamily properties must take the following five steps:
- Recyclable Materials: Provide recycling for plastics No. 1 & No. 2, paper, cardboard, glass and aluminum. Substitute materials may be proposed on the Annual Diversion Plan.
- Convenience and Capacity: All trash collection service containers or other collection points must have a recycling container within 25 feet. Multifamily and Commercial properties must meet certain minimum recycling service capacity to avoid “token recycling” efforts.
- Signage: All signs must indicate the recyclable materials accepted and use graphic illustrations, stated in both English and Spanish languages.
- Annual Education: Educate new employees and tenants within 30 days of hire or move-in and annually thereafter.
- Annual Diversion Plan: Submit online each year between Oct. 1 and Feb. 1.
Austin Resource Recovery has a team of experts who provide free consulting services to help property owners and managers understand the ordinance requirements and provide guidance on ways to improve or expand recycling programs. The team offers free training sessions, sends speakers to events and conducts onsite waste assessments. Online resources are available, such as signage templates, capacity calculators and tips for educating employees and tenants.
As new properties are phased in, owners and managers have a one-year time period to come into compliance. If businesses fail to comply, then the Austin Code Department gets involved and may issue fines of up to $2,000 per day per offense.
To date, no properties have been fined; however, we are carefully reviewing our enforcement process to ensure effectiveness.
My advice for other cities looking to implement a similar ordinance?
- Listen to the multifamily housing industry and get them on board early. Take their recommendations into consideration before ordinance adoption.
- Listen to multifamily residents. Tenants are a key factor in driving demand for recycling services.
- Create a list of standardized rules that can be easily implemented, to encourage best practices in serving the site tenants.
- Plan compliance techniques and acquire proper resources before implementation of the ordinance.
- Present the requirements as a means toward the city waste diversion goals, and avoid portraying the rules as new city “regulations.”
Moving forward, our staff is engaged in a waste characterization study to determine the type of recyclables heading to the landfill. This information will assist the education and outreach team in refining the messaging to local residents.
As cities like Austin grow and change, listening and engaging with the community is critical to zero waste’s success.
For more information about the city of Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, visit www.austintexas.gov/commercialrecycling.
Bob Gedert is director of the Austin Resource Recovery Department (formerly the Solid Waste Services Department) for the Texas capital. He is responsible for a 400-employee operation that provides services to Austin citizens, including trash, recycling, yard trimmings collection, street sweeping, litter and dead animal pickup, household hazardous waste and the implementation of the Austin Zero Waste Plan. Previously, Gedert operated the residential and commercial recycling service for the city of Fresno (Calif.) Department of Public Utilities. He has been involved with recycling and waste reduction programs since 1975.