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New SWS director plans to achieve Zero Waste a decade early

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 by Michael Kanin

If a proposed acceleration in the schedule for the city’s Zero Waste initiative is adopted, 90 percent of the city’s waste stream would be diverted to destinations other than a landfill by 2030, rather than the Council mandated deadline of 2040.


Solid Waste Services Director Bob Gedert sat down with In Fact Daily on Monday and discussed issues related to the coming Solid Waste Master Plan. That document is expected to be completed, following at least four public input sessions, by January or February. The plan will detail the approach that Gedert’s department will take as it strives to reconfigure Austin’s waste system.


For Gedert, who assumed the top job at the Solid Waste Services department in February, the aggressive timetable has a personal flavor. “I plan on a retirement date in 2030 and I want to see zero waste before I retire,” he says.


Gedert laid out the basics, saying that in the first three-to-five years, he expects to raise the citywide recycling participation rate from its current 85 percent to 95 percent. This action would bring commercial and industrial users more fully into the practice and, in so doing, lift the percentage of refuse that gets recycled to 50 percent of the waste stream.


In addition, Gedert says that an increase in food waste recycling via composting or methane collection could bring the city up to a process that would see 60 percent of its trash diverted from the landfill.


Gedert’s best guess currently puts that number at 35 percent for residential waste and between 35 and 40 percent for commercial waste. Figures for the industrial sector remain something of a mystery. All of this will be pinpointed as part of the master plan, he said.


After that, Gedert’s plan calls for steady improvements in the collection and processing of Austin’s waste, public education efforts, and various incentives that will bring that figure from 60 percent by 2015 to 70 percent by 2020. He calls for that number to go up in 10 percent increments every five years until 2030.


Gedert said that as he moves forward, he’ll keep in mind some lessons that he learned as Chief of Recycling Operations for the city of Fresno, Calif. There, he was able to move refuse collection from a diversion rate of 23 percent to one of 75 percent in just under six years.


Those numbers, however, may represent something of a rushed system. “In my own self-criticism, (the Fresno program) may have grown too fast (so) that some of (its staying power) was not built into the process,” he says.


“As much as we want to grow our recycling program as much as possible…we have to make sure that we build in the…sustainability so that the program stands on its own.”


Other lessons learned by Gedert have found their way into the plan. As the head of Source Reduction and Recycling for the State of Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management, Gedert took part in an initiative that sought to take advantage of byproducts from the steel industry. There, he and his colleagues found that the gypsum produced as part of that manufacturing process could be reused by a local firm that specialized in using that material.


As Austin moves closer to its zero waste goals, Gedert thinks that this sort of industrial coupling could turn the city into a Mecca for green-inspired industry. He illustrates what could be an economic boon with numbers he gets from an organization called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.


Here, he says, for every 10,000 tons of composting, recycling, or material reuse, the city could see four, 10, and between 75 and 100 new jobs, respectively. Austin’s current waste stream is about 2 million tons a year. If 90 percent of it were to be diverted to other sources, that would account for about 1.8 million tons of materials.


“The city, in the Zero Waste plan, is not representing itself as the collection agent—and that’s often the perception,” he says. “The zero waste plan (focuses on) the city being the organizer, the generator of ideas.  (We will) create a lot of public-private partnerships and create a lot of new private investment.”  


The first public hearing on the city’s Solid Waste Master Plan is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 31 at City Hall. That forum will include an update on the plan from the consulting firm hired to help in its assembly.


Gedert hopes to have the completed plan passed through the Council in time for Earth Day, April 20, 2011.

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