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City declares curbside recycling of plastic bags a bust

Thursday, October 9, 2008 by Mark Richardson

The City of Austin has completed a pilot project testing the feasibility of curbside recycling for plastic bags from grocery stores, dry cleaners and newspapers in the area. However, Solid Waste Services officials are calling the results something less than a success. 


Despite the fact that a survey of the 5,000 households in the test area found that 87 percent were aware of plastic bag recycling opportunities, only 25 percent of them participated in the program during its four-month run. From mid-May through mid-September, the city collected 7,793 pounds of material, which has a market value of $1,170.


However, the total cost of the pilot program was almost $35,000. According to the final report, Solid Waste Services pulled the plug on continuing the program because there was no cost benefit to the city.


Solid Waste Services Director Willie Rhodes told the Solid Waste Advisory Commission Wednesday that there were some positive outcomes.


“There are now more options for people to recycle plastic bags,” he said. “Cleaners are taking back plastic bags, as are grocery stores. And it also expanded the number of businesses that are willing to partner with the city on projects like this.”


The report cited low participation as well as a low volume of plastic bags being recycled for the failure of the program. 


“The department will continue to promote community-wide use of reusable shopping bags and to inform Austin residents about plastic bag recycling options at retail stores,” the report said.


The recycling program was accompanied by the public education program that included a series of postcards to residents in the five test areas, a blue five-gallon plastic bucket with setout instructions enclosed, and a follow-up mailer sent to participants in June.


The report noted that Austinites still have numerous opportunities to recycle plastic bag materials, including several grocery and retail stores, including H-E-B, Central Market, Randalls, WalMart and Whole Foods. A firm named Cycled Plastics, which was the recipient of the pilot program’s materials, accepts plastic bags at its facility at 10200 McKalla Place. However, they do not pay the public for the recycled materials.


In the report’s conclusion, it stated that curbside recycling of plastic bags was a high-cost, low-return proposition that was problematic due to a high rate of contaminated material in the buckets used to collect the bags. It added that the low market value of the materials collected did not come close to covering the costs of providing the service.


The city is working at the plastic bag problem from other angles, such as reducing the number of bags used. Last year, Council Member Leffingwell pushed for a citywide ban on plastic bags, but the measure was scaled back to allow for voluntary compliance before Council members approved it this year.


A spokesman for Leffingwell’s office this week said they have been collecting information from a number of major retailers on how the voluntary program is working.

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