A Decade of Action Toward a Zero-Waste City
How far along are we?
The city of Austin adopted the Urban Environmental Accords way back in 2005, which committed us to becoming zero-waste by 2040. Austin Resource Recovery (back then still the Solid Waste Services Department) first piloted curbside collection of recyclables in 2011 with 12,000 homes.
In 2015 the city conducted a waste characterization study that showed the potential impact of curbside composting; ARR found that almost everything Austinites were sending to landfills was either compostable (46%) or recyclable (44%), and only 10% required solid waste disposal. Thus, Austin's "zero-waste" goal is really to reduce its solid waste stream by 90% through recycling and reuse – including composting.
Since 2016, ARR has steadily rolled out its curbside composting program in four phases, with this year seeing all residential customers in Austin provided with green compost bins. But 85% of Austin's waste comes from commercial users, including businesses and most multifamily buildings, whose waste is handled by private haulers, not ARR.
That led to Austin adopting its Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO) in October 2018, requiring businesses to divert at least 50% of their waste from the landfill. By 2020, the citywide goal is to divert 75% of Austin's waste from the landfill; another waste characterization study is currently underway to gauge our progress.
A common misconception is that the URO requires businesses to compost. "We ask them to report how they are diverting or reducing food waste," Pace explains. As long as there is a demonstrated effort, businesses can reduce waste by purchasing less; donating to food banks, ranches, or farms; or even "creat[ing] alternative programs ... customized to your business." Residential curbside composting is also not required: People can return their bins if they do not want to use the service, but must still pay the $1 increase to the base collection fee, made in 2016. They can also reduce costs by choosing a smaller-sized bin.
But what if composting could actually save the city money? Organics "By Gosh", which takes in material for composting from both ARR and private haulers, says, "In the United States 30 to 40 percent of our food supply becomes food waste. When this food goes to waste, we have to spend money to discard it. We spend an estimated $165 billion a year disposing of excess food. In comparison, converting our food waste through composting can enrich our soil, deepen our pocketbooks, and support future generations with healthy plants and crops."
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