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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Proposed disposal pilot program draws city staff opposition
Council Member Bill Spelman has set an item on Thursday’s City Council agenda that could produce data about the realities of city-wide composting. Though the measure drew two co-sponsors, Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Mike Martinez, staff is adamantly opposed to the idea.
Spelman’s item would kick-off a program that would collect information about how residents of one of Austin’s many multi-family dwellings use their garbage disposals. Staff – including Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens, Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros, and Resource Recovery Department Director Bob Gedert – remain concerned that this would be a tacit endorsement of disposal use, something they argue goes against the city’s Zero Waste efforts.
Indeed, Spelman’s move touched off an aggressive defense of staff’s position against any mention of disposal use in its yet-to-be-approved Resource Recovery Master Plan. That came in the form of a memo addressed to council members from Assistant City Manager Robert Goode.
Should the item pass, it would instruct City Manager Marc Ott to “work together with outside stakeholders to ensure that the cost to the city for this pilot is minimized.” Emerson Appliance Solutions, manufacturer of the InSinkErator brand of kitchen sink disposals, has offered to foot the bill.
Spelman’s action was preceded by more than a year’s worth of lobbying from the manufacturer. During that time, representatives from the company pushed the city to include a pilot disposal education program in its resource recovery plans.
Much of that effort was directed toward staff, and included meetings with Athens, Meszaros, and Gedert. It was met by stiff response, and a seven-page memo from Athens which detailed her department’s concerns that any inclusion of disposals in the city’s Zero Waste Master Plan would run contrary to Austin’s so-called “highest and best use” goals, a guideline that dictates waste should be disposed of in the most recoverable fashion possible.
Spelman’s resolution asks Ott to select “one or more” multi-family complexes where each of the units has a garbage disposal. The program would begin with a “pre-pilot waste sort” that would attempt to determine how many fats, oils, and greases residents send down city pipes.
The pilot itself, which would last for between three and six months, would attempt to educate residents about what can and can’t go down their drains. They would also receive “apartment-sized composters” and accompanying educational materials “in order to encourage composting on an apartment-sized scale.”
The program would close with another waste sort that would aim to assess progress. Ott’s office would be instructed to compile a report with all of the details.
Gedert presented the resource recovery master plan to Council on Nov. 10. Spelman used the occasion to introduce the idea of the pilot disposal program. There was no vote on either the plan or Spelman’s pilot.
A vote on the whole plan was scheduled for Thursday. Spelman’s proposal comes as a separate item.
Goode sent his memo on Dec. 7. “The Zero Waste goals of the City encourage diversion of food scrap, and the avoidance of any form of disposal,” he wrote. “Staff recommends that the City should not engage in this proposed pilot to expand usage of food waste disposal units for the myriad of reasons listed…but especially for the fact that composting is a ‘higher and better’ use than the ‘disposal’ method utilized by food waste ‘disposals.’”
Goode further noted that no pilot program that included disposal use would “change the final recommendation to Council” against inclusion of disposals in the city’s Zero Waste plan.
Spelman told In Fact Daily that the memo “largely missed the point.” He noted that the study could “determine whether people are using garbage disposals properly,” potentially reduce the number of fats, oils, and greases that end up in the city’s wastewater stream—the major cause, Spelman said, of “tie-ups in our system”–and produce an early look at how many Austin apartment dwellers might take advantage of composting.
“We don’t know the answers to any of those questions yet,” he said.
Spelman pointed out that if the program doesn’t work, the city doesn’t have to continue with it. “It’s just a pilot,” he said.