A Banana Peel, a Diaper, and a Plastic Bag Walk Into Austin's Composting Program
How can a whole city compost, is it working, and can we reach zero waste by 2040?
It’s 9am on a chilly morning in Austin, and a big green truck is at the intersection of 38th and Jefferson, heading into the Bryker Woods neighborhood. Every 10 feet or so, it stops and two men in safety-green jackets hop out, manually tipping residents’ green bins into the truck. It’s a painstakingly slow process, each block taking about five minutes. They’ve been at it since 6am and won’t stop until around 3:30pm. This year, curbside collection of organic waste for composting expands to the entire city of Austin, serving 200,000 homes each week and traveling a different route each day. Between compost, trash, and recycling, Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) is the only city department that visits every Austin neighborhood this often.
It's a gargantuan effort to deal with something that most people never give a second thought. But, just for a moment, consider the banana peel. When you toss one into the garbage, it most likely lands in a bag made of polyethylene plastic, which can take thousands of years to degrade in a landfill. Even still, that banana is perfect fertilizer, right? Wrong: Because of the lack of oxygen, a banana peel trapped inside a bag cannot break down properly. When rain mixes with waste in a landfill (like banana juice and plastic bag chemicals), a liquid called leachate is produced, which pollutes soil and waterways. Not only do landfills give off methane gas – one of the worst contributors to global warming – they also present a maintenance problem for cities: Once a site is closed, it has to be managed indefinitely to keep it contained.
"In a landfill it takes hundreds, thousands of years for things to break down, so we don't have any timeline for when that responsibility will end," explains Ashley Pace, public information specialist for ARR. Composting and recycling reduce the need for landfills, which in turn saves our money and our resources. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, how we deal with our waste is inextricably tied to the future of how we consume.
From Trash To Compost
If not in a landfill, where should our banana peel end up? You may have noticed green bins, just like the blue recycling bins except for color, popping up in your neighborhoods since last September (or well before that if ARR piloted the program in your area; see "A Decade of Action Toward a Zero-Waste City"). If you toss your banana peel in that bin, Austin Resource Recovery picks it up and brings it to Organics "By Gosh", a privately owned facility in Hornsby Bend, east of Austin, that repurposes the scraps into compost, soil, and mulch to be resold. ARR does the same for every house in Austin (but not every apartment; only fourplexes and smaller) as it's expanded curbside collection to the whole city this year. But surprisingly, the contents of those bins only amount to 15% of the entire city's organic waste. So what happens to the other 85% generated by restaurants, retailers, large apartment complexes, and other commercial users?
The city's Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO) governs the nonresidential aspect of Austin's composting world. Basically it requires Austin businesses to divert at least 50% of their waste from the landfill through composting or other means. If they want to pay someone to haul their food waste off to Organics "By Gosh", there are many private haulers to choose from. Among the most venerated – established long before the URO's food-waste provisions took effect in 2018 – are Break It Down and Joe's Organics. Break It Down services such beloved local food-and-beverage businesses as Kerbey Lane Cafe, Home Slice Pizza, JuiceLand, and Wheatsville Co-op. Joe Diffie of Joe's Organics (whose clients include Short Stop and Bento Picnic) was involved at the inception of the ARR pilot program in 2012 as a data collector and administrator. He says the main issues compost haulers faced back then still remain: the cost of hauling and processing organics on such a large scale, contamination, and the low resale value of compost.
Getting to Scale
Both Joe's Organics and Break It Down have been around for a while, since 2012 and 2009 respectively. In 2018, however, the scale of the organic waste supply increased exponentially due to the URO, making it hard for commercial haulers to continue processing the waste themselves. (If one measly banana peel can do damage, imagine JuiceLand's output.) "It's in the process of rotting, so it has to be dealt with regularly. You have to have a lot of expensive equipment to process it efficiently," says Diffie. When the ordinance passed, Joe's Organics shut down its own composting operation: "It was getting to be too much to manage. I would've had to upgrade equipment. It really took off right after the ordinance was enacted; all of a sudden I had three times as much volume as I was used to. I said, 'I think it's time to let the pros handle the compost.'"
The pros are at Organics "By Gosh", which processes both residential and commercial food waste. OBG has been around since 1989 and was recently acquired by a private equity firm called Q2Earth. They have scaled up their operations considerably since the 2018 URO, both processing the city's increased curbside collections and taking more waste from the private haulers serving commercial users.
One of the biggest issues with composting on such a large scale, for both ARR and commercial haulers alike, is something relatively out of their control: contamination. Ray Armstrong, a supervisor at ARR, has one word when it comes to this: "Pampers." Due to greenwashing (advertising that makes a product seem more environmentally friendly than it is), many people think that certain types of diapers are compostable, but "biodegradable" and "compostable" mean different things. In order to control contamination, Armstrong's team conducts frequent audits.
As part of one such audit this morning in Bryker Woods, those workers in safety vests will collect organic waste from 60 households, bring the contents back to ARR's own facility, spread out the waste, and inspect. If ARR collectors note contamination or improper sorting, they will place a tag on the door of that resident. Even if it means picking through dirty diapers, "not picking it up is not an option," says Armstrong. "Customer service is more important. We'll pick it up even if it's wrong, but we'll leave literature to try to educate that customer." On the commercial side, in busy restaurants it's easy for a stray plastic wrapper to end up in the compost bin, so most private haulers also provide education for businesses on how to separate different kinds of waste and avoid contamination. This year's city budget funds two new enforcement positions for the URO.
Though enforcement may help, education is paramount in preventing contamination. ARR holds information sessions in neighborhoods before each rollout of the composting program and follow-up Q&A sessions after, but not everyone attends. Part of Pace's role is to field questions from the public in these sessions. "It can get very confusing. There are a lot of rules," she says. The most important thing to remember is, "If you aren't sure, just keep it out." In an effort to address the confusion, the city has a search tool on the ARR website (app version forthcoming) called "What Do I Do With ...?" where residents can type in any item and be told how to dispose of it. See www.austintexas.gov/what-do-i-do.
Pace says another common theme of her Q&As is the smell created by compostables and the ways to mitigate odors: by using a *BPI-certified bag in the small, green, in-home bin provided by ARR (or wherever you collect scraps) on your kitchen counter; or by putting those scraps in the freezer until the day of collection. But there's only so much lipstick you can put on the pig. "The bigger picture is that composting is not as easy as throwing everything in the trash," she explains. "I think that's one of the hardest cultural barriers for people to get over. You're being asked to separate things, put them in specific bags, and we understand that's not the easy way, but it's the way that's going to help us reach our zero-waste goal and extend the life of our landfills."
A Valuable Resource?
The city is not alone in thinking about the bigger picture. Those on the other end of the chain – compost processors – have innovative ideas of their own about the possibilities of compost as a resource. Joe Diffie says the future of food waste management is a kind of closed loop, where the food we eat is grown using the city's repurposed waste.
"We spend all this money either burying or composting our food waste, and then we spend all this other money importing our food from other places," says Diffie. "I could really see using a city's food waste stream to raise food in the immediate surrounding counties, kind of bridging the gap between city and country. The city could benefit the country with some feed stock for building up local agriculture. Local agriculture could in turn lower its prices a little bit and help the city afford healthier food."
Some haulers and processors already practice small versions of this model. Break It Down partners with a local pig farm where animals consume all of its food waste except putrescibles (i.e., animal products) which they drop off at OBG. Joe's Organics (Diffie's biz) now drops off waste at OBG, buys the soil products OBG produces, and uses them to grow microgreens, edible flowers, and other specialty produce to be sold at farmers' markets in Austin.
Raising farm animals, nature's built-in composters, is an especially lucrative option. "Pigs love this stuff," says Diffie. They quickly eat up all the food waste and subsequently turn a profit for the farmers in the form of bacon. This model also solves an existential problem for haulers and processors: the low resale value of compost. As Diffie points out, "Chicken poop is worth more than food waste. Basically they created this commodity that somebody has to process, but there's no end market for it. Compost is the most expensive waste stream to recycle because it has such a low value. Anybody that can find a way to increase the value that you can generate off the back end of a compost-hauling operation is going to be able to beat the competition on the hauling rates." And nothing increases value like bacon.
But About That Smell ...
GrubTubs, a local startup with a lot of recent media attention and WeWork funding, provides perhaps the most succinct example of this closed-food-loop ideal: Its model uses black soldier fly larvae, a protein-rich grub, to break down food waste (including putrescibles), and then feeds the grubs to pigs and chickens that, in theory, end up on the menus of the restaurants whose food waste raised their feed.
Unfortunately, businesses can run into trouble processing without special equipment like that of OBG. Compost can generate a rank smell, especially when improperly processed, and if the facility lies too close to a residential neighborhood, it could create an environmental justice issue. Austin saw that issue arise in 2013, when HausBar Farms' insect-assisted compost pile started to generate noxious odors that wafted into the surrounding Govalle neighborhood. In 2019, urban farm history repeated itself as the Buda neighborhood of Whispering Hollow, along with the city of Buda itself, brought a lawsuit against GrubTubs for an offensive odor that was allegedly lowering residents' quality of life and making a mockery of the city slogan ("Breathe easy here"). GrubTubs, whose facility lies just outside the Buda city limits, prevailed in that legal action, although the city has enacted an ordinance that it hopes will prevent such issues from reoccurring with other urban-ag operations.
In these cases, the problem was the inclusion of animal products in the compost pile, as well as the use of (different) animals to break down the waste into compost. The residents of Whispering Hollow reported unfamiliar fly infestations allegedly related to the grubs on GrubTubs' nearby farm. Chicken carcasses smell worse than veggies and take longer to decompose. Another concern is feeding animals their own end products (i.e., pigs eating bacon); not only does that sound disgusting to many, it also enables disease transmission – most notoriously, mad cow disease. Animals that eat humans' food scraps likewise run a risk of contracting human-borne illnesses like tuberculosis; for this reason, the European Union does not approve of the use of black soldier fly larvae for animal feed. Composting animal products remains one of the most mysterious and confounding issues of this business – though ARR now collects them as part of the city compost program. When OBG was asked about their putrescible processing specifically, they declined to comment – secrets of the trade, apparently.
Other Cities, Other Models
Because Austin's citywide composting program is new, it's a challenge to define and track metrics that will help us know for certain if the plan is working or if it will work going forward. But ours is not the first city to attempt citywide composting. San Francisco was the first U.S. city to commit to a zero-waste goal, back in 2003, and by 2012 it was able to divert 80% of its waste from landfills. San Francisco's composting and recycling programs are similar to ours, but with one key difference: mandatory participation. Despite that, it did not reach its zero-waste goal by 2020; the new goal is to divert 97% of waste from the landfill by 2030. (That's even more ambitious than it sounds because San Francisco defines "zero waste" literally – no landfill trash at all.)
Copenhagen uses data to motivate its citizens to sort properly. "Feedback about ... sorting shows that what you do has effect and importance," says a report from C40, an international network of 96 cities (including Austin) committed to climate leadership and sustainability, including zero waste. "For example, a feedback could be: 'You have sorted xx kg of plastic and thereby saved xx kg of CO2.'" Sweden is famous for powering its cities by burning trash in low-carbon incinerators and turning food waste into biogas (methane gas that isn't emitted but instead captured for use as a fuel interchangeable with natural gas).
New York City is aiming for a 90% diversion rate by 2030 but has hit roadblocks in its composting program. According to a 2018 New York Times article, "Residents put only about 10 percent of their food scraps in the brown bins, throwing the rest in the garbage." They think the issue stems from "a lack of advertising and education, and the fact that the program is voluntary." In Texas, San Antonio and Austin remain the only cities with a composting program as part of their residential waste management. Fort Worth is currently piloting one, where bins are provided for a fee of $20 and residents must drop off at a processing site themselves.
In all of these cities, changing people's behavior is one of the most difficult challenges. Even with a mandatory system, San Francisco, the poster city for environmental achievement, is having trouble reaching its zero-waste goals. Increasing education and advertising is the most common response to this challenge, but considerable change in the products we buy (and their packaging) will have to come into play as well, with an end goal of a circular economy where products are designed to be reused. There's only so much that can be recycled or composted; many products are still just trash.
To address the multitude of apartment dwellers in a city where more than half of residents are renters, Austin is set to begin another six-month pilot program, with 10 to 20 participating multifamily properties, that operates like the residential curbside pickup program. Currently apartment complexes are considered commercial users, creating their own waste-diversion plans with private haulers. Scaling up a collection plan for multifamily residents could prove difficult if current conditions persist – the lack of incentive for private haulers and the low value of compost. More innovative ways of reusing waste may change that, but those must be carefully managed so as not to create uncomfortable living situations for those nearby. No one likes living next to a landfill, but no one likes living next to a compost pile either.
Austin Resource Recovery will conduct a "waste characterization study" this year to determine how much waste we are currently diverting from the landfill, whether we have reached the 75% diversion goal for 2020, and how much still needs to be done to reach the 2040 zero-waste goal. That's not as far off as we might think.
In 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported and predicted much more rapid warming of the planet than previously thought (see www.ipcc.ch/sr15). The Earth is now projected to warm 2.7 degrees by 2040, making our zero-waste goal all the more relevant. After 20 more SXSWs, Austin's population may have tripled. The composting program is as much a call to action as it is a service. If individual residents don't participate, if we don't make a habit of keeping diapers out of our green bins, or if we don't start making products that are compostable, this thing won't work. We, as a city, approved the zero-waste plan way back in 2005. Now it's up to us to see it through.
*Editor's Note: This story has been edited to read "BPI-certified" rather than "BPA-certified." We regret the error.