Public Notice: Total Garbage

Good news and bad news about your waste stream

Public Notice: Total Garbage

Austin Resource Recovery announced this week that they'll be expanding their Curbside Composting Collection Program to an additional 53,000 households beginning in September, adding to the 95,000 homes they currently service. That means the city will be picking up compostable materials from nearly three-fourths of their residential customers, with the rest slated to be added next year pending funding by City Council.

The program collects food scraps, yard trimmings, and food-soiled paper, converting them into compost and keeping them out of landfills as part of the City's Zero Waste goal to divert 90% of materials from landfills by 2040. ARR will be holding a series of instructional open houses over the next couple of months; see for info, including detailed instructions on sorting compostables and recyclables and a My Schedule web tool to tell you whether you're in the lucky three-quarters and when your pickup dates are.

On the Other Hand

There could be an ancillary benefit to the composting pickup if it keeps some of that contaminated material out of your recycling bin, because the ugly truth is that whole system of single­-stream recycling has been teetering on the brink of collapse for the last couple of years – not just in Austin, but indeed across the entire globe.

Remember how you used to have to separate out plastic from metals from paper, and deal with each separately? And remember how things got almost magically simpler when pickup went to single-stream, where you can just toss all those things into one bin, and someone else would sort them out somewhere down the line? Well, it turns out that (surprise) there is no such thing as magic, and "somewhere down the line" turned out to be a shantytown in China that couldn't really take the whole mess and just dumped a lot of it into the ocean. And now they don't want to deal with it anymore, so there's basically no market at all for most of that stuff.

“Many of the plastic materials that U.S. consumers try to recycle – especially plastic bags – never get recycled at all. They’re just trash.” – Edward Humes, “You Can’t Recycle Garbage,” Sierra Magazine

That's the sad tale related in Sierra Magazine's cover story this month, "You Can't Recycle Garbage," by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes. "By 2016," Humes reports, "China was importing more than half of the world's plastic and paper trash." But the mixed bundles of paper and plastic that the U.S. was sending to China had up to 30% contamination by nonrecyclable materials and were useless for recycling; as a result, up to 3.5 million tons of plastic a year were simply discarded into the ocean. "In 2018," Humes goes on, "as part of a domestic crackdown on pollution, China banned imports of dirty foreign garbage" in a broad initiative dubbed "National Sword." And with that, the market for single-­stream collected materials collapsed completely. Suddenly, cities that had been selling those materials to help pay for trash collection were having to pay someone to take them off their hands.

The bright side, though, is that U.S. recycling companies once again have the incentive to reinvent their industry and re-create waste flows that have a better final outcome than the old out-of-sight, out-of-mind (and into-the-ocean) system. And the key, once again, is going to lie in sorting and preventing contamination of materials that can be gainfully reused. Kerry Getter of Austin-based Balcones Resources is quoted repeatedly in Humes' story; he blames the larger waste companies for pushing markets into single-stream recycling plans "that focused heavily on two commodities – contaminated mixed paper and mixed plastic – that only China wanted. Today those same companies are demanding rate increases to continue curbside recycling." Getter claims that Balcones, among others, has instead invested in more sophisticated sorting equipment that can produce cleaner, purer paper and plastic materials, which he says "have maintained their price since the National Sword regulations kicked in." To that end, "Don't try to recycle anything smaller than a credit card," Humes advises. Especially bad for the sorting machinery are bottle caps and plastic bags, wrap, and straws.

And don't forget food waste: This is the first ever Keep Austin Fed Week, which began July 7 to emphasize that for only $7 a month, local nonprofit Keep Austin Fed is able to identify and collect enough surplus food at restaurants, markets, and caterers to feed three meals a day, every day, for a month to someone in need. Donations for the campaign are welcome anytime at

Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors, and other useful grist to nbarbaro at

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