More than a decade in, Austin is not meeting its 'zero waste' goals — and we're not even close
"The principle foundation of this plan," Bob Gedert told Austin City Council members at a meeting in November 2011, "is the City Council goal of 50% by 2015, and our zero waste goal of 90% by 2040."
Gedert, then director of Austin Resource Recovery, was laying out a plan for reaching what's called "zero waste" for Austin's residential curbside customers, which includes pretty much every single-family home in the city. The idea was to get more than 90% of the trash from those customers diverted to somewhere other than a landfill by the year 2040.
"This is a philosophical change in looking at our waste stream as a materials stream," he said. "And looking at the material that our residents set out at the curb as a resource that has a second or a third life to it."
Maybe the trash gets recycled or composted — the idea was for it to go anywhere but the landfill.
It was an ambitious goal. The fiscal year before Gedert made this presentation, Austin diverted a little more than 37% of its waste away from the landfill.
City Council approved the plan on Dec. 15, 2011.
But nearly 12 years later, the percentage of Austin's curbside refuse being diverted from the landfill has barely moved. In fiscal year 2022, the diversion rate was 38%.
By 2015, we were supposed to be at 50% diversion. And by 2020, the plan was to hit 75%.
Obviously, we're nowhere near that.
'We are behind'
Since the zero waste plan was rolled out, the city has launched several new ways to divert trash from the landfill, including curbside composting. None of the plans seems to have made much difference.
"We are behind on our goal and we see that," said Richard McHale, the current acting director of Austin Resource Recovery. "As we try to educate people to get them to use those containers better, we'll see our diversion rate increase."
McHale points to what he calls the "ick" factor when it comes to putting more food waste in a compost bin. Then there's the problem of people throwing food or garbage in recycling bins, which can contaminate the whole bin and send all of that material to the landfill. A recent audit found more than 20% of Austin's curbside recycling is contaminated and cannot be recycled.
Why is this a problem at all? Why is zero waste even the goal?
Landfills are filling up, of course, and no one wants more of those. Tossing things in the landfill is also a huge waste of the energy it took to extract and create those items, and it requires more energy and more carbon emissions to replace the material we toss out. Tons of stuff rotting in a landfill pile also releases greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.
So garbage is a problem, but sometimes it's just not simple to do the right thing.
"We need to make diverting material from the landfill and reducing our waste something that's easy and accessible for people," said Kaiba White, a former member of Austin's Zero Waste Advisory Commission.
"[When] everybody has the option — when they go to the trash, right next to that is recycling and composting — then I think we can be successful."
More to do
White says the city could be doing more to educate people about how and what to recycle and compost. And it's not just about individual choices — policies need to change, too. But banning certain items that are difficult or impossible to recycle isn't easy. State law and recent court decisions have made clear that cities in Texas aren't free to simply outlaw problematic trash.
"We can't ban plastic bags, we can't ban any kind of styrofoam packaging or anything like that," White said. "We could incentivize transitioning away from those things — and Austin Resource Recovery does that to a certain extent."
For instance, the city offers rebates to businesses that stop using disposable plastic items.
But there's more to do.
"We've kinda taken care of all the low-hanging fruit, the things that are easy to do," ARR's McHale said. "So now we're getting to the point where we have to start changing people's attitudes about things they throw away."
Changing those attitudes city-wide is not easy.
Austin Resource Recovery handles curbside collection, which accounts for only about 25% of the city's total waste stream. The rest is handled by private contractors who pick up waste from businesses and apartment buildings.
But the city does have some power to regulate those sources of waste.
For example, there are currently no requirements that restaurant customers have access to composting options, and there are few options for recycling outside the home. Both are things the city could address.
Then there are the inconvenient options for recycling things that can't go into the curbside bins. The city could add more geographically dispersed options for dropping off those kinds of materials.
Is zero waste out of reach?
When asked whether Austin would meet its zero waste goals, White was not optimistic.
"I think we should keep trying and do everything we can to get there, but I think about the past 10 years and change has been slow," she said.
One of the biggest reasons for that slow pace might be kind of obvious. We treat garbage as out of sight, out of mind. We throw it away and it disappears, for us. But of course, everything goes somewhere.
It's Garbage Week on KUT News. It's like Shark Week, but with no sharks and more garbage. We'll trace the path of the junk Austin makes, including how your food scraps get turned into garden soil, how much of the stuff in the blue bins actually gets recycled and how we can all do trash disposal better. Listen on KUT 90.5 FM or find the stories here (new ones added throughout the week!).