City Adds Costs and CO2 to Recycling Program

Our milk jugs, newspapers, and cereal boxes are shipped to Dallas for sorting and selling

Everyone agrees: Single-stream recycling is the biggest and best change to Austin's trash handling since the introduction of dual-stream in 1994. The new 90-gallon recycling bins increase the volume and types of waste that residents can recycle, the new trucks started making collections on schedule on Oct. 6, and the city hopes to avoid redundancies by retraining staff from its old recycling plant on Todd Lane as support staff for the new system. Plus, selling the recyclables should turn a good profit. "It's a great project," said Rick Cofer, vice chair of the city's Solid Waste Advisory Com­mis­sion. "It saves thousands of tons of recyclables from going to the landfill."

But, adds Cofer, there's a missing component. The city was supposed to have its own materials-recovery facility, or MRF (pronounced "murf"), to take that trash and sort it. The council and the commission approved and paid for a planning study. There was even a potential location picked out: the old FM 812 landfill, south of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. City staff says it will happen eventually, but when is unclear.

Cofer says he's concerned that, somehow, somewhere, the plan for a city-run or city-owned MRF quietly got swallowed up in the decision-making process after SWAC approved it in July 2007. "From that meeting, I said it was important to ride herd on that project, because it was so expensive," he said. But city staff was uncommunicative, he said. "At every turn, we were rebuffed: real 'dog ate my homework' excuses from Solid Waste Services."

The MRF completion date slipped from 2008 to 2009 to 2010; then in July, SWAC was told the city had mothballed the project and already made alternate arrangements. On June 5, council approved a 24-month interim deal with Vista Fibers (now Greenstar North America). Under the agreement, the city would collect the recycling, Greenstar would transport it to its facilities, sort it, sell it, then (after costs) give 90% of the revenue back to council. According to Cofer, "SWAC was told and council was told that this was a cost-positive and the city would net $1.5 million a year."

But there's a complication. Greenstar's San Antonio site is at maximum capacity, so Austin's waste now goes to Dallas. Greenstar is building a new 180,000-square-foot single-stream facility in San Antonio to open in early 2009, but, as Cofer notes, that's still half a year of shipping Austin's waste 200 miles to Dallas rather than 70 miles to San Antonio. Neither is a great option for gas costs or CO2 emissions from the trucks and nowhere near as good as the city having its own MRF – as originally planned. Jill Mayfield, public information officer for Solid Waste Services, agrees that, ecologically and financially, transporting the waste before sorting is not ideal. "It would be better to have a MRF here," she said. "One, it would cost less to transport it, but two, we'd keep all the revenue."

What Cofer finds even more frustrating is that, while SWAC in May recommended that council sign the Greenstar deal, it did not want to include transportation in the agreement, preferring to have that as a separate contract, possibly with a third party. Cofer argues that's another costly mistake. Until San Antonio comes online, the trash travels three times as far as planned, transportation costs rise, and the city gets less net revenue.

So what happened to the city's MRF? It hasn't been canceled. It's become part of a bigger scheme, anchoring what Solid Waste Services Assistant Director Don Birkner calls a new "green district" including a visitor and education center, plus research and business facilities. As Birkner explained, "The council said, 'We want you to go ahead on single stream, but we want you to hold off on a MRF until we have a green district master plan, to make sure that all of that fits together.'"

But a good deal of MRF planning was already under way. In July 2007, the city hired infrastructure consultants R.W. Beck Inc. for design and permitting. According to Birkner, it completed phase one (planning and design) and had begun phase two (layout). That's roughly 20% of the total $3.5 million contract, for which the consultants were paid $1 million. Birkner said he believed their findings will be integrated into the final project. "It's gonna be a considerable investment for the city," he said, "and they just want to make sure it's right."

The end result, Cofer argues: The city canceled the MRF in favor of a green district master plan, ETA unknown. "It's sort of like Water Treatment Plant Number 4. How long has the city been working on that, 20 years?" said Cofer. "I would love to see a Cadillac MRF that's an anchor for research and development, but [the city] should have thought of that first."

What to Do With Your Leftovers

Under the single-stream system, the city picks up all your paper, cardboard, aluminum and metal cans, glass jars and bottles, and rigid plastics Nos. 1-7 to be recycled. So what to do with everything else? See below.

Ecology Action: Along with regular recyclables, this nonprofit takes books, telephone directories, foil, pie plates, and plastic bags. They'll be opening 12 new satellite drop-off points around the Hill Country. The Downtown site also takes cell phones and printer cartridges.

Downtown, 707 E. Ninth: Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm; Saturday-Sunday, 9am-5pm.

Cedar Park, 2665 Whitestone Blvd.: Thursday-Saturday, 8am-4pm.

Bertram Recycling Center: inside water tower off I-29, 24-hour drop-off.

Plastic bags: Many stores – including Central Market, H-E-B, Randalls, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods – offer plastic-bag recycling.

Foam and plastics: Cycled Plastics accepts public drop-off of packing foam, low- and high-density polyethylene, and plastic flowerpots. (They also provide commercial pickup and waste-audit services.) Monday-Friday, 7am-5pm, 10200 McKalla.

Computers and electronic goods: Check the city website for a full list of local e-cyclers:

Appliances: The city of Austin Diversion Recycling Center takes appliances (except microwaves and TVs), car batteries, aluminum cans, and large metal items. Monday-Friday, 8am-4:30pm, 10108 FM 812. Austin Energy also offers fridge and freezer recycling pickup for appliances measuring 14 to 27 cubic feet:

Motor oil: The city provides a full list of local mechanics that accept used engine oil from residents.

Hazardous waste: Potentially toxic chemicals, such as paints, solvents, auto fluids, bug sprays, and old cleaning fluids should be sent to the city's Household Hazardous Waste Facility. Tuesday-Wednesday, noon-6pm, 2514 Business Center Dr.

Batteries: Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., a national charity, keeps a searchable database of stores and firms that accept all kinds of nickel, lithium ion, and small sealed lead batteries through the Call2Recycle program.

For a complete A-Z guide, visit the city's Solid Waste Services website:

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recycling, materials recovery facility, MRF, Solid Waste Advisory Commission

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