How Austin’s Working Toward Zero Waste and Circularity

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

September 2, 2021

7 Min Read
City of Austin

In 2011, Austin, TX established a zero-waste goal – 90% diversion from landfill by 2040 – and it’s set multiple programs and policies into play to try and get there. The plan has evolved over time, becoming about more than recycling common curbside materials and composting. Now it’s as much about reuse and reducing what gets consumed or generated in the first place.

For residents, part of the mix is weekly curbside pickup of yard and food waste [for single family; now being piloted for multifamily]; clothing and household items curbside collections; and fix-it clinics where they learn to repair belongings from bicycles to home appliances.

Local businesses receive technical assistance to support their diversion practices but also are guided in working to prevent waste upstream and in keeping materials of value coming back to them. They tap into opportunities to share best practices. And they sign on for programs like a competition where they pitch uses of their surplus materials to investors and entrepreneurs.

But Austin Resource Recovery, formerly known as the city’s Solid Waste Services department, has set sights beyond its city limits, partnering with a diverse set of stakeholders around the country. The rational is that a broader reach will bring payback for its own community, and at the same time help address regionwide and global problems.

The city is just over 10 years into what it calls its Comprehensive Plan to zero waste (formerly known as the Master Plan), which lays out steps to get to the 2040 goal. It’s intended to guide decisions around building infrastructure, systems, and operational procedures.

“We use this plan to help chart our course and to make it easy for the city, rate payers, and businesses to see where we are going and understand why we are doing what we are doing,” says Ken Snipes, director of Austin Resource Recovery.

The city’s plan and the industry have evolved over the past decade. So now the department is evaluating what it’s done to date and looking to see where to make adjustments.

“We will work to determine what we need to do differently, or what enhancements to make over the next 10 years to meet the 2040 goal. And we are looking not only at how to get to zero waste, which focuses on managing materials at the end of life, but we are looking beyond to achieve a circular economy that considers how things are designed and the supply side,” says Gena McKinley, Strategic Initiatives division manager for Austin Resource Recovery.

As it pushes ahead, the department finds itself in an interesting situation: it does not manage materials for 85% of the city. That lion’s share is businesses, commercial, multifamily, C&D and special events operations, all which are managed by the private market.

The department is looking to persuade that 85% in order to be able to achieve zero waste as a whole community.

It created a universal recycling ordinance that establishes minimum diversion requirements for commercial and multifamily properties and requires these entities to report their diversion methods and numbers yearly. The data is leveraged to confirm compliance and to help inform the comprehensive plan as it evolves.  

A C&D recycling ordinance requires permitted projects over 5,000 square feet to recycle at least 50% of their debris and also to report their outcomes.

“These policies are ways to influence those materials that we do not collect ourselves so we can achieve results across all sectors. We are setting a standard and minimum expectation for businesses because it will take involvement from everyone to meet our goals,” McKinley says.

“But we don’t just develop policy and wash our hands clean. We provide technical support to make sure they have tools and resources they need to be successful in complying.”

An outreach team meets with businesses one on one to help them figure out how to set up best practices that work within their operations and answers their questions such as about managing their contracts or space constraints.

“Austin is growing, becoming denser, so we may talk to them about container size or ways to change collection frequency. We may suggest that businesses adjacent to one another in retail strips talk to one another about sharing services or other resources,” McKinley says.

While the business outreach team supports them in being able to comply with diversion policies, a circular economy team helps them look beyond collecting and processing. Rather staff consult with businesses on how to incorporate zero waste practices throughout their operations, beginning with manufacturing and continuing along the whole supply chain.

Bimonthly circular meetups provide a forum for local businesses to share their challenges and ways around them and other best practices.

Austin Resource Recovery also works to attract outside businesses with circularity ambitions, facilitating networking opportunities and connecting them with Austin’s Economic Development department where they can learn about training and other services to help them get started.

Partnerships have been part of the strategy to reach for zero waste and circularity. Austin has met with neighboring cities to share problems and solutions. It recently hosted a plastic summit, drawing stakeholders from around Texas to talk about how they could collaborate to cut these material types. And it joined the U.S. Plastics Pact, born out of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to continue the plastics conversation with more businesses and governments.

“We also talk to manufacturers to get them to think of how they can design products to make them more compostable or recyclable or design waste out of them,” says Snipes.

“We do this because most materials we end up needing to process are coming from outside the city. We have a vested interest in being sure what they manufacture is easy for us to recycle or repurpose here in Austin.

But we recognize this is a global issue, and if we are going to resolve it, we can’t think just of what’s happening within our borders. We have to think of the issue in a more holistic manner,” Snipes says.

On the residential front, collections and processing infrastructure are a big focus.

Austin started outsourcing recycling once it went to single stream, shutting down its materials recovery facility (MRF) and now sending to two private MRFs, which it says is driving increased diversion as is its contract with a local composter.

Among other programs to further bump diversion is a drop off center for hard-to-recycle materials like polystyrene, plastic bags, electronics, and household hazardous waste. Paint that’s dropped off is offered back to the public free of charge in a separate area after it’s blended, filtered, and packed. Plastic film and some other materials are packaged and shipped to a vendor for reuse and recycling.

Residents designated as Zero Waste Block Leaders help their neighbors know what to do as their options grow.

“The biggest challenges in supporting the city’s zero waste goal is that recycling is confusing,” says Dena Houston, one of Austin’s first block leaders.

Now citizens can tap into an app on Austin Resource Recovery’s website to learn how to correctly discard specific items. Sometimes Houston goes to the site to get answers for them. If she can’t find what she’s looking for, the city has a block leader liaison she calls for more information.

She writes a column for her neighborhood newsletter on wish-cycling and other diversion-related topics that has since been picked up by 10 communities, reaching 20,000 residents. She includes her contact information and people routinely reach out to her with questions.

“They want to know things like, ‘What do I do with fluorescent lightbulbs?’ ‘Are my vacuum bags compostable?,’” she says.

She reflects back to 1989 when Austin began its first recycling program to collect basics like plastic, paper, and glass.

“We used to have ginormous trash cans filled weekly. We were aware of the concept of reuse and recycling but did not know how to do it.”

Now between all their choices and education, many of her neighbors have gone from 96- to 24-gallon garbage cans. Houston saw the biggest change when yard waste and food scrap collections came online.

But beyond, she says, “Austin Resource Recovery has gone from bare essentials of recycling to a very creative multifaceted program intended to address all aspects of recycling, reuse, and repurposing.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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