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Some Austin Restaurant Owners May Find New Composting Rules Hard To Stomach

Montinique Monroe for KUT
Hoover Alexander, owner of Hoover's Cooking, serves food at the State of Black Business luncheon Thursday. Alexander says many Austin restaurant owners were unaware of a new city ordinance requiring them to keep food waste out of landfills.

All Austin businesses with a permit to sell food are now required to divert organic waste from landfills, but some restaurant owners say they didn’t get the message.

Austin implemented the last phase of the Universal Recycling Ordinance’s organic diversion program Monday. Businesses now have to provide access for employees to properly dispose of organic material, like soiled paper products and food scraps.

Hoover Alexander is the owner of Hoover’s Cooking and president of the Texas Restaurant Association chapter in Austin, a nonprofit that advocates for businesses in the hospitality and food service industries. He says several owners and vendors were not aware of the ordinance until a meeting Wednesday.  

“My biggest concern is letting people know what they’ve got to do,” he said.  

The ordinance has been phased in since 2012 as part of Austin’s Zero Waste goal. Last year, all properties were required to provide tenants and employees convenient access to recycling.  

“About 85 percent of the material generated in our community comes from commercial and multifamily businesses, and as a city we don’t directly control the material generated, meaning we’re not at the curb picking it up,” Gena McKinley, a program manager with Austin Resource Recovery, said. “It’s maintained by private companies, and so we influence that portion of the waste stream through local policy.”

Business owners are required to provide regular education for employees, post informational signs and submit an Organics Diversion Plan by Feb. 1.

Diversion options include donating food, sending scraps to local farms and onsite composting. Owners can also hire haulers to pick up their food waste, but Alexander says the cost to hire those private companies has become a concern – especially for smaller businesses.

“The feedback I got Wednesday, folk were throwing out numbers from $150 to $400 or $500 extra to handle composting," he said, "and that’s most likely going to be the case."

A city official said the cost to haul compost has gone down recently because of competition and that more compost also means less trash that owners need to pay to have removed.

Alexander said it's not cost effective enough, though, for business owners who now have to pay to haul recycling, compost and trash.

He said the cost and the lack of knowledge about the ordinance make him skeptical about compliance from restaurants early on.

“I have a feeling a lot of folks, those who are barely scraping by, are going to be resistant to pay extra,” said Alexander, who recently added $1 to customers' bills to help pay for city-mandated employee sick leave. (The new regulation was supposed to take effect Monday, but it’s being challenged in court by the state.)

“[Small businesses] can bleed to death by a thousand cuts," Alexander said. "Collectively, they can shut you down, theoretically.”

McKinley said there is an enforcement process, but that the city will "work with the businesses the best we can when we find they’re not in compliance with the ordinances.”

Alexander said the Texas Restaurant Association is working with the city and will be providing information to local businesses to reduce confusion.

“We want to do the right thing, and it’s not like we’re anti-environmentalists, but again folk are going to have a hard time, one, not knowing about [the ordinance] and, two, paying for it,” he said. “I think that’s going to be true at least initially.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Hoover Alexander.

DaLyah Jones is a former assistant producer for All Things Considered and evening host. She is also co-host of the Two & Fro podcast.
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