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Resource recovery master plan delayed

Monday, October 10, 2011 by Michael Kanin

After two years of work, the newly renamed Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) Department came to the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission (SWAC) in search of a formal endorsement of its vision for the future of waste and recycling in the capital. Despite clear satisfaction with the effort, however, SWAC instead told the department to keep working for at least another two weeks.


With commissioners poised to approve the document, stakeholders–including Adam Gregory of Texas Disposal Systems–called for a delay based on the argument that they hadn’t had enough time to review the binderful of materials in front of them. “I’ve read every word of it, but I still have not had time to fully digest everything that’s in there,” said Gregory.


Ultimately, the body decided a delay, though inconvenient, could prevent unwanted bickering when the issue comes before Council on November 10. “I want this to sail through unanimously at Council with praise and love,” Commission Vice Chair Rick Cofer told his colleagues.


The Austin Resource Recovery master plan is a sweeping effort that aims to paint the department as a business-friendly, partnership-happy, forward-looking entity. Its key goal remains the diversion of nearly all of Austin’s waste from landfill processing by 2040.


ARR department head Bob Gedert told the commission that 75 percent diversion by 2020 is a reachable, albeit ambitious goal. However, he noted that anything above that—such as the 95 percent diversion rate imagined by the plan for 2040—would require major changes, some of which are beyond the city’s control. “I have a lot of confidence (in)…reaching that 75 percent,” he said. “It gets a bit dicey getting to 85 percent…in order to get (there) we really need to talk about getting rid of the disposable society and into longer term usage of TV sets, sofas, and furniture, and so forth.”


As part of this effort, Gedert anticipates that ARR rate payers will see a collective increase in service costs of roughly$5.4 million by fiscal year 2020. This could present the department with a situation somewhat analogous to that faced by the Austin Water Utility as conservation efforts drove use—and water bills—lower.


Gedert told In Fact Daily that his team had prepared for such an eventuality. Initially, he said, users of the 96 gallon trash containers would bear much of the cost. Should that burden drive the use of larger trash receptacles down—as Gedert hopes—the brunt of the bill would slide as well. “We’ll slide our fair share cost down to the most common cart used,” he said. “When we do that, we’re basically creating a revenue flow that doesn’t hurt us—our goal is a revenue flow that pays for the programs but doesn’t overcharge the customers.”


He summed it all up: “Residents using (the 21 and 32 gallon) carts will save a lot of money,” he said. “The 64 gallon, as I’m projecting rates right now, pays their fare share, but the 96 pays a lot.”


Even casual city observers will remember Texas Disposal Systems (TDS) from its long dance with Gedert’s team over which private firm would service Austin’s residential single-stream recycling program. In the end, TDS signed on to pick-up 35 percent of that program, with the remaining 65 percent handed to competitor Balcones Resources.


Though the deal signed by both firms extends for multiple decades, it’s scheduled for regular review periods. As part of that process, the city has reserved the right to reallocate the contract.


The commission gave interested parties until last Friday to submit their concerns. Gedert will spend the next week addressing that input, and then return for a special called commission meeting on October 19.


Gedert told In Fact Daily that he believes that any issues will be addressed by then.

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