The Austin Chronicle

City Plans '[re]Manufacture' for Landfill

City hopes to create jobs while moving Austin closer to its zero-waste goals

By Robyn Ross, August 8, 2014, News

One person's trash is another's treasure. With its new "eco-industrial park" south of the airport, Austin plans to apply that adage on a very large scale.

The businesses it plans to locate on 107 acres adjacent to the closed municipal landfill will turn recyclable materials into new products and bring manufacturing jobs to a disadvantaged area. At today's City Council meeting (Aug. 7), the city is expected to formally accept a $1 million grant for the project from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Right now, says Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert, most recyclable materials collected in Austin are sent overseas for "remanufacture." City trucks haul the contents of the blue curbside bins to two local companies that sort paper from plastic, and then those companies bale the materials and ship them to manufacturers that turn them into new products (a park bench made from water bottles, for example). Gedert says changes to international shipping regulations in the late Eighties made it more cost effective to send materials overseas, but the result was the evaporation of domestic markets.

The eco-industrial park, to be called the Austin [re]Manufacturing Hub, is an attempt to reverse that trend. The businesses sited on its roughly 12 lots could be involved in recycling (of paper and wood fibers), reuse (such as electronics repair), or upcycling (most commonly associated with art). With these companies located in Austin, Gedert says, the city would reduce the carbon footprint of recycling and divert more material from landfills. The latter accomplishment would create jobs while moving Austin closer to its zero-waste goals. Gedert's example of a company that would support that triple bottom line is a manufacturer turning recyclables into reusable grocery bags.

The land designated for the Hub lies along FM 812, midway between McKinney Falls State Park and the Circuit of the Americas. It abuts the city's landfill and was originally destined to become part of it, but FAA regulations required the eventual closure of the landfill, beginning in 1999, when the airport moved to its current location at the former Bergstrom Air Force Base. Landfills attract scavenging birds, a hazard for airplanes. (The city's residential trash is now taken to a private landfill operated by Texas Disposal Systems, located near the southern tip of Travis County.)

The designated land, currently in Austin's extra-territorial jurisdiction, will be considered for annexation in December. The city will begin vetting prospective tenants later this year, and plans to start construction on infrastructure, like water and wastewater lines, in early 2015. Companies will break ground next fall.

In addition to the federal grant, the city will invest between $8.5 million and $10 million in infrastructure development. While the details are still being worked out, planners expect to recoup the investment via income from leases in a couple of decades. The park will support up to 1,250 jobs, says Recycling Economic Development Liaison Natalie Betts, who works for both the Economic Development Depart­ment and Resource Recovery. Most will be in manufacturing – a good fit, Betts says, for the segment of Austin's population without advanced degrees or with barriers to employment like previous incarceration. "Our statistics on income inequality are not good in Austin," she said. "We think this could be a real catalyst and provide an employment center for this part of town."

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