Austin is a beautiful city that just happens to lie just 10 miles from the Texas Disposal Systems landfill. No city wants to be known for the amount of trash they produce, and Austin is certainly no exception. That’s why they have adopted ambitious goals to implement over the coming years. City officials are trying to change the way residents view their trash, calling it “resources” instead of “waste.” These “resources” are things that can be repaired, reused and recycled, rather than have their fate destined to rotting in a landfill. They aim to be “zero waste” by 2040, which means the materials will be diverted to a more environmentally friendly fate. This was adopted along with the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan in December 2011.

austin aims for zero waste“The descriptor is ‘zero waste, or pretty darn close,’” says Rick Cofer, chair of the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, “and generally that’s meant to be a 95 percent reducing of waste that’s sent to landfills. It’s a philosophy that the leftover material from commerce and life has an economic value as a commodity, and that by treating it as a resource you can get more value out of it. It’s green environmentally, but it can also be economical.”

Austin introduced single stream recycling, also known as “all-in-one recycling,” in 2008, the city only saw an increase in recycling from 30% to 36%. Director Bob Gedert was hired in 2010 and leads the department. The name was even changed from “Solid Waste Services” to “Resource Recovery” to reflect the new change in perspective on the matter.

Since the rollout of those new single stream bins, the city’s recycling increase has come to a halt. There are incremental goals working all the way up to the ultimate goal in 2040 for the amount of waste that should be diverted from the landfills. The goal for 2015 is to have 50% of waste being diverted and recycled. Unfortunately for Austin, since the initial jump to 36% with the introduction of the all-in-one recycling in 2008, their recycling numbers have only grown by 4%.

“We call ourselves a green city,” Gedert says, “but only 72 percent of residents are recycling, and only 60 percent of recyclables are actually getting in the bins.” Changing the numbers to match Austin’s self-image requires a shift away from the very idea of “trash” to seeing discarded items as “materials.”

austin landfill

The Texas Disposal Systems landfill (TDS) that is just southeast of Austin takes in 2,500 to 3,000 tons of waste every day from Austin and 90 surrounding communities. The other nearby landfill, Waste Management, takes in an additional 1,200 tons per day.

“You can walk around in there and find things that should have never been put in a trash can, that should have been recycled,” says Adam Gregory, business development specialist of TDS. “But what needs to happen is for folks to do the sorting before things get here. It’s just not economically feasible for us to take every single truck and do a sorting process on it. What’s really going to have an effect on diversion is the individual mindset of the consumers.”

The city’s resident recycling figure of 72% comes from a 2012 survey by Resource Recovery pickup crews and route supervisors. It represents the number of households that put out their blue recycling bin. They are working on a follow-up survey that will break down the numbers by neighborhood so that efforts can be concentrated on certain areas.

waste management in austin

The conclusion that only 60% of household recyclables are getting into the bins is based on comparing Austin’s pounds-per-household with general EPA guidelines. A hypothesis is that since many people will leave their bins in the kitchen, items from the kitchen will be recycled (such as aluminum cans and plastic bottles.) Recyclable items that aren’t in the kitchen, such as shampoo bottles or magazines, might not make it into the kitchen to be recycled. The city is conduction a study to determine what types of items are ending up in the landfill that shouldn’t be.

If you’re an Austinite, how does your family fare on recycling? Do you have any tips for your neighbors, family and friends? In order to achieve the “zero waste” goal by 2040, everyone will have to work together!