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Aggressive plan could pose a challenge for city’s recyclers

Monday, November 7, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Two near-term changes in the way the City of Austin handles its waste stream could present challenges for area recyclers and city officials. The first of these, the addition of aseptic containers – for example, square boxes used for juice and milk – to the city’s single stream recycling program will begin next year. The second, a switch from once-a-week landfill trash collection to every other week service, is projected for 2016.


In the case of the former, Austin’s two single-stream residential recyclers – Texas Disposal Systems and Balcones Resourceswill have to ship the new materials to a facility in Oklahoma. But in order to stop weekly trash pickup, the city’s legislative team will have to convince legislators to re-write state law.


The changes are part of the wide-reaching Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan. That document lays out a path that department head Bob Gedert hopes will lead the city to divert more than 95 percent of its waste from landfills by 2040. A scheduled briefing on the plan for the Austin City Council was delayed due to a lengthy session last Thursday.


The plan details specific goals that the Resource Recovery Department sees as necessary to bring about 95 percent diversion of waste. Longer-term suggestions include the development of a third collection stream that would bring composting to both city businesses and residents. The plan also calls for the creation of an eco-industrial park that the department hopes will help sustain the large-scale re-purposing of the city’s waste stream—the key goal of the plan—and bring green jobs to the area.


As part of the program, resource recovery could call on the City Council for, according to a fact-sheet, “ordinances, incentives, bans, take-backs, purchasing specifications and advocacy.” Resource Recovery – the department itself took on a name change and rebranding in conjunction with the plan – will also restructure its cart fees beginning in 2013.


Gedert says that both of the city’s current single-stream residential recycling processors are on board with the addition of aseptic containers – such as the gabled cartons used for orange juice or milk – to their responsibilities. “A lot of kids’ lunches have these smaller juice boxes,” he says. “They’re very popular with families these days, and a growing part of our materials stream.”


According to Gedert, the Oklahoma facility that will handle the processing of the containers “is the closest mill” that can handle these containers and will likely be the one the city uses. However, those agreements will be left for the recycling firms to handle. “That would be between the vendor (TDS and Balcones) and the Oklahoma mill.”


The master contract signed by both vendors can be periodically reviewed. It is flexible enough to allow the city to change vendors, if certain criteria are met. The contract also stipulates that Resource Recovery can add a new material to the single-stream process once a year. Gedert anticipates that aluminum foil could be next.


“We can enlarge the program, we can add new materials each year,” he says. Gedert later added that the city’s role is “making sure that there is a market” for each new material “before we add (it) to the stream.”


The switch to twice-a-month trash collection is complicated by a state law that mandates landfill waste pick-up every seven days. However, Gedert sees no problems with pitching a change to the legislature. “If we take the smelly stuff out, which is the food organics, and put it into an organics cart, you have a fairly inert, small waste stream that could be collected every other week,” he says. “I talked to (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) and they embrace the concept.”


Gedert says that the change in the law may not be Austin-specific. “I’ve been talking to other communities and it could be state-wide impact,” he says. “They have asked me not to identify them. They are watching us and moving along and following us.”

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