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Gedert reflects on progress at Austin Resource Recovery

Monday, January 16, 2012 by Michael Kanin

On Dec. 15, the Austin City Council approved the guiding policy for its former Solid Waste Services Department. The Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan, as it’s called, is more than 300-pages of designs for a zero waste Austin. It also serves as the roadmap for the department’s scheduled arrival at that goal, in 2035.


The Council’s action marks a major achievement for the department’s chief, Bob Gedert. And its passage is something of a milestone for his department. Not just for the fact that it is, after much effort, finally completed, but also as the final act of a transition for the department that begin with the ouster of former Solid Waste Services head Willie Rhodes in 2009.


Though the department has been through several key moments since Rhodes’ departure from that position – including a search for his replacement that ended in Gedert, a battle over its single stream residential recycling contract, and a still-pending ban on plastic bags at retail checkout – the master plan represents a different level of accomplishment. In Fact Daily sat down with Gedert to discuss it, the future of his department, and his long conservation pedigree.


Gedert, whose hybrid Honda boasts a ‘zerowaste’ vanity plate, puts the genesis of his green ethos at the feet of his grandfather. “He was an American farmer,” Gedert says. “He knew his soils and he knew how to rotate crops. He was a pretty progressive farmer in trying to preserve the quality of the land.”


He credits the same relative with inspiring his approach to the master plan. “My grandfather came up with the idea and (motivational speaker) Stephen Covey stole the idea,” Gedert jokes.


Gedert walked to his whiteboard to illustrate his point, drawing a graph resembling a tick-tack-toe grid. “This is my way. This is your way,” he said as he labeled his impromptu presentation. “This is compromise — and often in American politics, we try to compromise — and this is innovate. This is where my grandfather said ‘spend the time and innovate’.


“Stephen Covey calls this a win-win,” Gedert continued. He pointed to the compromise label. “He’ll call this a lose-lose. The whole point is we often point to the compromise to resolve conflicts like plastic bags when really we should be looking at that box up there”–now highlighted with two red arrows — “innovate.”


The master plan features more than a handful of innovation. Among the highlights are a city-wide composting program and a potential eco-industrial park that would include only firms that reprocess or repackage previously used goods. Along the way, the document would guide the city toward a program of as much as 95 percent waste diversion—that is, 95 percent of the city’s trash would be headed somewhere other than a landfill.


Questions have been raised about the feasibility of the project. And Gedert himself admits that trying to get that figure above 75 percent will require major societal changes. He worries that the commercial side of the commercial-residential equation – a portion of the 75 percent of the city’s waste stream that isn’t subject to direct municipal control – may not meet the goal of 50 percent diversion by 2015.


Indeed, he notes that, though the majority of the private haulers are on board with the plan, roughly a quarter of them may resist it. Still, he argues these are in process, and looks on the plan with hope. “I’m an optimist,” he said. “My personal work ethic is, set a goal, let’s work towards it.”


Gedert will face more industry push-back as he tries to shepherd a ban on paper and plastic bags at checkout. Still, with evident support from the Council — Mayor Lee Leffingwell has worked on the issue since before his time at the head of the dais — the measure appears headed for approval as early as this month.


He notes that officials across the country are watching to see how the city moves forward with these efforts. “I had some conversations on the phone with a couple people from Cornell University and Stanford University,” he said. “There’s people all around the country watching (us)…What they’re viewing us for is the pragmatic implementation of these ideas.”


The statement flips a popular Austin axiom – the one about planning and doing – on its head. “Many communities…(toss) out new ideas, new approaches but they die a few years later,” he continues. “What Austin is heading down the path (for) is a permanence.”


Gedert turns to the master plan. “This is a permanent direction with a practical, pragmatic game plan,” he said.

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