Zero Waste Efforts Throughout Austin

By Sheila Julson

The concept of zero waste, or near-zero waste, entails creating a lifestyle that eliminates waste through reducing, reusing and recycling, with the ultimate goal of sending little to no trash to the landfills. Past generations lived zero-waste lifestyles before plastic packaging and disposable consumables became commonplace. With today’s on-the-go lifestyles, the idea of generating no waste may seem daunting, but with a little planning and effort, it’s possible to live a waste-free lifestyle.

The City of Austin is committed to zero waste through its Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) program. Jennifer Denton, community engagement consultant for the ARR department, says their master plan, put in place in 2011, kicked off a zero waste goal of 90 percent landfill diversion by 2040.

Program initiatives include single-stream recycling collected biweekly, and weekly trash collection based on a pay-as-you-throw model—the less trash one generates, the smaller the trashcan they will require. “It’s an incentive to recycle more,” Denton explains. “In some areas, we have curbside composting to further incentivize folks to compost materials that are not recyclable, like food scraps.”

A rebate program is available for Austinites that take the city’s backyard compost class or the chicken-keeping class. The Austin Reuse and Recycle Drop-off Center (ARRDC) allows for further recycling of materials not recyclable in the blue curb carts, such as Styrofoam, textiles, large cardboard, hazardous waste, batteries and tires. Denton notes the AARDC is the only place in Austin where Styrofoam can be recycled and returned to the plastics market.

The commercial side of the program includes guidance for businesses to create recycling plans, finding licensed private haulers, and obtain signage to direct employees and customers where to properly dispose waste.

ARR has several marketing campaigns that emphasize the zero waste triangle—reduce, reuse and recycle. “When you look at zero waste from that aspect, it’s primarily about reducing the amount of materials that are used and put back into our waste stream,” she says.

Austin resident Cindy Frey is one of several ARR zero waste block leader volunteers that helps educate and support her neighbors in zero waste practices. She also has held educational presentations with the zero waste coordinator.

A key component to achieving zero waste is building awareness that trash is a problem. To help implement successful recycling on the residential level, Frey helps her neighbors identify what can and cannot be recycled, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs. “They contain mercury and could contaminate other recyclables,” she says.

Frey advises that household recycling can be made easier by putting containers around the house to collect plastic, glass and paper products. She also recommends composting plant-based food scraps; buying in bulk at grocery stores; and reusable food wraps made from cotton muslin or beeswax instead of plastic. When dining out, she brings reusable food containers to restaurants for leftovers.

Plastic straws and cutlery cannot be recycled, she notes. Although those items are plastic, they’re too small to be recycled and could jam sorting machines at the recovery facility. Frey suggests bringing reusable steel or bamboo cutlery, and glass or silicone straws.

In efforts to reduce volumes of waste generated in the first place, Frey is part of a minimalist group that promotes buying fewer consumables. The Next Door app and Buy Nothing are online resources where people sell or give away household items. As block leader, Frey notifies her neighbors when she’s making a trip to ARRDC and will take their Styrofoam, electronics and hazardous waste.

Gray Godwin is owner, investor and manager of B-Austin Community, a mixed-use apartment complex with 14 residential units. His commercial waste management efforts began during the construction phase by partnering with a construction diversion specialist. “We put everything that could be potentially reused, like leftover two-by-fours that had been sized for a specific reason, into a special dumpster that went to a specific sorter,” Godwin says. “They took that wood and chopped it down to make things like composite board. We recycled 83 percent of the construction materials.”

B-Austin Community provides education and framework for tenants to recycle and compost. The complex has rain barrels for stormwater and a grey water recycling system. They generate an average of 3,200 pounds of compost per month for the apartment’s community gardens. In just a five-by-10-foot area, active, maturing and master compost piles are rotated regularly. Clear signage instructs residents as to which pile they should place the scraps. The constant rotation also helps avoid a pest problem.

There’s an on-site collection area for batteries, small electronics, light bulbs and other items that would go to the ARRDC. A cleaning commissary is stocked with natural cleaning products that B-Austin sells at-cost to their residents. When people move in, they’re provided with reusable containers for soap, and commissary purchases are added to a tenant’s rent at end of month.

Godwin notes that the tenants have really taken ownership of the zero waste culture. “They’re really excited to learn and implement waste-reducing practices,” he says.

For more information about the City of Austin’s zero waste efforts, visit AustinTexas.gov/department/austin-resource-recovery. For information about B-Austin Community, visit B-Austin.com.