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Disposal pilot program to be delayed until the New Year

Friday, December 16, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Questions about a pilot program intended to educate Austinites on disposal use that might provide some indication of whether apartment occupants would use in-home composting will linger well into the New Year.


On Thursday, the Council voted to postpone action on the pilot until it has a chance to further discuss the idea with key members of city staff. The program will also be vetted by at least two or more advisory boards.


Lurking in the background were continuing questions about the feasibility of the brand new Austin Resource Recovery Department master plan. That document, which Council blessed with its unanimous endorsement on Thursday morning, calls for 95 percent waste diversion from city landfills by 2050. A key component of the initiative is a comprehensive, city-wide recycling plan that includes curbside composting.


Council Member Laura Morrison wondered about the reality of that idea. “What’s the reality of us actually being able to achieve composting.”


ARR chief Bob Gedert told Morrison that this was “the challenge in today’s discussion.”


“What’s the reality in capturing that material for composting,” he continued. “I don’t think we’ve really tried yet.”


Later, in a response to a question from Council Member Bill Spelman Gedert was more complete. “We do not have the mechanics in place to require food waste collection—that comes at a future juncture point but the haulers and the receiving facilities are ready to move forward,” he said. “I think what we’re waiting on is some test piloting of food waste collection at the processing facility and test piloting some collection methods at the multi-family (unit).”


The pilot program proposed at Council wasn’t exactly what Gedert—or officials with the Austin Water Utility, or the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens—had in mind. This program, brought forward by Spelman aimed to incorporate education about proper disposal use into a pilot program that would also distribute plastic compost containers to apartment dwellers in an effort to learn more about the potential for food scrap reuse. 


The program would be funded by Emerson Electric Company, the firm behind the InSinkErator in-sink food waste disposal units. Representatives of the firm have engaged in more than a year’s worth of aggressive lobbying for the idea.


After a flurry of resistant memos from staff—including Athens and Assistant City Manager Robert Goode (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 13, 2011) – Spelman began to dig into their objections. “Finally, we have a chance to talk with each other about this,” he said.


Gedert told the Council that, as part of the ARR master plan, a pilot to study composting in multi-family dwellings would be conducted in FY2013. He told Morrison that such a program should first focus on composting.


Gedert also expressed concern about the mixed message that disposal education could deliver. “The reason why I don’t consider it a possibility to do both at the same time is the cross-messaging,” he said. “If you’re going for diversion but yet you’re training a certain portion of your population on disposal, you have to reverse that messaging at some point.”


ARR objects to disposal use on the grounds that it doesn’t meet their highest and best use sustainability standards. Spelman suggested that food waste “could be used both for energy generation and for compost” if it was sent down the drain to the Water Utility’s Hornsby Bend facility.


The assistant director in charge of the Austin Water Utility’s engineering services division Gopal Guthikunda added the water utility’s perspective. Guthikunda pointed out that it takes energy to move the waste through the utility’s pipes. He was also concerned about wear.


“We do not want to load the pipelines with additional solids that may create problems, blocking (our facilities),” he said. “If we could take the solids directly to Hornsby Bend, that would be great.”


Ultimately, Spelman decided to postpone the item.


After the hearing, Emerson spokesperson Kendall Christiansen told In Fact Daily that the wait would be worth it. “This is the conversation we’ve been hoping to have with the city, in depth, for a while—and it’s not happened for various reasons,” he said. “We’re glad to get these issues out in front of the council, in front of the city to consider. Glad to have it in front of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, Water and Wastewater Commission—that’s all fine for us.”

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