Monday, June 15, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Open-space recycling a challenge to city, says staff

Austin’s recycling requirements are ambitious, but they don’t cover one major area — open spaces. Now, the city is taking steps to make up for it.

The Austin Resource Recovery Department recently performed an assessment on Parks and Recreation Department recycling efforts, and both are considering a plan to provide these services at city parks, pools and more. Staff from these departments presented a joint update on the situation and suggested potential next steps to the Zero Waste Advisory Commission on Wednesday.

“They’re very eager to start recycling,” said Resource Recovery Strategic Initiatives Division Manager Jessica King about Parks and Recreation staff. “There are some serious challenges, and they are not light ones.”

The obstacles King identified include “severely limited” funding; limited staffing, equipment storage and space for dumpsters at certain locations; and special requirements for outdoor recycling containers such as the ability to withstand wind, rain and vermin.

Parks and Recreation’s Parks Grounds Manager Jeff Larsen conceded that, though his department’s administrative offices have recycling available and there is a requirement for special events on city parkland to include recycling services, there is much work to be done otherwise.

“We have over 2,000 trash cans in the system, but only 17 recycling cans at our sites,” Larsen said.

King provided examples of Resource Recovery’s cost assessments for providing recycling services at two specific locations.

Northwest Pool, King said, would require $5,608 in one-time costs, such as purchasing recycling containers and custodial equipment, and $11,320 in costs per season, such as purchasing recycling bags and paying for collection services. A season, she said, usually lasts between three and four months.

Zilker Park, King continued, would require $94,000 in one-time costs, including purchasing 60 recycling containers at $1,500 each, and $51,840 in annual costs, including purchasing $3,690 worth of recycling bags per month.

King said the city should develop a recycling expansion phase-in plan by next summer that starts with metropolitan area parks, pools, athletic fields and golf courses and prioritizes sites that have high volumes of patrons as well as high demands for recycling services.

The discussion took place within the context of the city’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, which requires all city facilities to provide recycling services to tenants and employees — but, as King pointed out, it does not apply to open spaces. “It wasn’t a part of the discussion through the many years of stakeholder meetings (leading up to the ordinance),” she said.

The ordinance will apply to all commercial property in Austin starting in October 2017.

Rick Cofer, chair of the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, pointed out the irony of the situation.

“The city needs to walk the walk. The idea behind the Universal Recycling Ordinance was that no matter where you lived or worked in Austin, if there were four walls and a roof, you’d have recycling available to you,” he said. “We screwed up if we forgot to include places that don’t have four walls and a roof.”

Cofer recommended a simple goal for the expansion effort. “Where there is a trash can, there should be a recycling receptacle as well, because we want to divert trash from landfills,” he said. “Perhaps a good guiding principle as these plans are implemented would be parity between landfill trash and recycling.”

Andrew Dobbs, Central Texas program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, pushed back against some of staff’s cost assessments during citizens communications, arguing that a $2,200 monthly figure for recycling bags throughout the season at Northwest Pool is too high and questioning the need for such bags at all.

Commissioner Cathy Gattuso also commented on the recycling bag issue. “I think another thing we’ve learned is to be very cautious on expenditures, and also on getting plastic bags out for everything,” she said. “I wonder about the price of these bags, if somebody will really take a strong look at that.”

Gattuso pointed to a recent report stating that the city’s single-use bag ordinance is effective at reducing the consumption of single-use plastic bags but contributes to an increase in the number of heavier, reusable bags in the recycling stream.

King explained her recycling-bag cost assessment. “Northwest Pool is highly visited, and the frequency of (staff) going through and collecting bags and containers, that’s the frequency that we talk about,” she said, noting that waste and recycling are exposed to the elements. “We have to make sure that they’re contained appropriately to minimize issues.”

Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert highlighted the budget challenges that the city faces in attempting to expand recycling services. “There’s always the opportunity of City Council to divvy up the General Fund in a different way,” he said. “But, as you can see by current budget discussions, there’s difficulty paying for the current expenses out of the General Fund.”

Photo courtesy of By Airainix (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Resource Recovery: Formerly Solid Waste Services. The department in charge of handling solid waste disposal, recycling, and--in what is still a pilot program--curb-side composting for the City of Austin.

City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

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