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Official says Zero Waste needs regional effort to succeed

Thursday, July 10, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin’s Zero Waste efforts will hardly make a significant dent in the area’s trash generation if the full region does not get behind the effort.


Dan Cardenas, assistant director of Austin Solid Waste Services, presented an overview of the region’s current landfills and trash generation at last night’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission meeting. Cardenas was using “old” data – the results of a Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) study completed in 2005 – but he also created a piece of software that extrapolated the impact of Austin’s waste generation – with or without a zero waste effort – on the area’s trash capacity.


Even though Austin represents 53 percent of the region’s population and 54 percent of the region’s trash generation, an effort to reduce waste above the current recycling efforts – 10 percent, 50 percent or even 100 percent – does not push the needle very far when it comes to reaching capacity in the region’s current landfills.


As it currently stands, the region’s four major landfills will reach capacity by 2018, based on the 2005 CAPCOG study. Updated figures, minus any conclusions about the zero waste efforts, could push that needle back to 2015. That is based on an estimated population of 3 million in the 10-county CAPCOG region by 2030. That level of population would generate 4.6 million tons of trash per year.


“I am not trying to tell you that we will run out of space by 2018,” Cardenas told the board. “What I am telling you is if nothing changes – and the same things that are occurring now continue to occur – by 2018 we will be having an issue of not having the landfill capacity for the disposal of our trash.”


The one point that Cardenas and Kelly Freeman, CAPCOG’s solid waste coordinator, wanted to emphasize was the need for regional participation. However, as Chair Gerard Acuña mused aloud, how could Austin make other jurisdictions “feel the pain” that the city is now feeling as its being pressed by landfills near capacity.


Freeman speculated such determination would have to come from Austin’s strong leadership or out of the Legislature. The latter might be difficult to expect, as the state no long mandates any kind of recycling goal, preferring simply to “suggest.” 


To make his point about the impact of Austin’s zero waste efforts, Cardenas ran through a number of scenarios with his software, estimating the amount of waste reduction Austin might be able to achieve under its zero waste plan. In most cases, the number was slight, and in no case was the impact of waste reduction such that it could get rid of the need to add another landfill to the region.


In fact, even if all of Austin’s waste was subtracted from the equation – the city reached actual zero waste – the timeline on landfill capacity was extended by only six years, a point extrapolated by using current Texas Commission of Environmental Quality data to make predictions of trash trends through 2030.


Cardenas did warn the SWAC that his conclusions were based on a number of assumptions that did not include the expansion permits currently under review at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. All three landfills in Travis County currently are in the process of seeking expansion permits.

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