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New SWS director outlines plan to bring green industry to Austin

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The recently hired director of Austin’s Solid Waste Services department, Bob Gedert, would like to turn the city into a Silicon Valley for green industry. He presented his vision, which calls for a comprehensive local support system for eco-industrial development that could produce a host of employment options for Austinites, to the Council Committee for Emerging Technology and Telecommunications on Wednesday.


The idea will be more fully developed as part of a Solid Waste Services master plan to be prepared over the next year by HDR Engineering.


In a presentation he called “Trash to Treasure,” Gedert told the committee that his eco-business model would work perfectly with the city’s Zero Waste goals. “Zero waste is an economic driver in the community, particularly in high tech…(but also) in low tech activity,” he said.


He added that though green jobs can translate to blue-collar employment, he saw a broader effect for eco-business. “Generally speaking, we’re talking mid-to-upscale jobs in the green economy,” he said. “We’re talking product redesign. We’re talking about policy implementation, community organizing. We’re talking about entrepreneurs. We’re talking, at multiple levels in the business community, green jobs.”


Gedert suggested that research and development projects based around local handling of recycled goods such as discarded toilets or tires could provide some of that employment. “We would like to localize the markets of recyclables—where can we move our glass where it’s not moved to another state or another country?” he said. “There’s a lot of development and research dollars that are needed there.”


Indeed, he said that any industry that would like to green up its act could be a prime target for a green jobs project. “Industry that produces these products are asking—begging—for research assistance in how to make a cleaner product,” he said. “And they don’t necessarily have the in-house tools available to (them).”


Council Member Chris Riley asked Gedert if his model could utilize the existing partnerships that the city has used to foster high-tech growth, specifically that of the Austin Technology Incubator. Gedert told Riley that this is “absolutely” a possibility.


“It could be the same… but we’re bringing new topics to the table,” he said.


For her part, Council Member Laura Morrison was curious about what sort of volume it might take for Gedert’s concept to succeed. “I’ve heard some discussion in the past…that to really become a thriving industrial economy where we can actually use our own waste…that it might be an issue of regionalism,” she said.


Gedert told her “regionalization is very key to the success of (Austin) being an innovation center and a green jobs economy.” He then discussed the concept of a ‘wasteshed,’ a “market driver” that determines the size of a given waste region. These, he said, can be determined using the distance of how far a truck can drive to a waste site, and still present a municipality with an economically sustainable option.


He suggested that this zone might extend as far out as six or seven counties.


Because the venture would be a first-of-its-kind endeavor, Gedert couldn’t point to hard employment figures. Still, he appeared optimistic about the potential of the project.


“There are seven jobs in recycling to every job in a landfill,” Gedert told In Fact Daily. “The numbers are even more stunning in the reuse industry. For every job that’s involved in landfilling, you translate that into 40 or 50 jobs in the reuse industry.”


“What I’m focused on more is on the upscale of working with the product manufacturers and designers and upgrading technologies,” he added. “There’s a lot of technology jobs out there and that’s an unknown—how many jobs can you (throw) in for that.”

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