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Citywide compost pickup may be on the way

Wednesday, August 26, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

The blue recycling bin that many Austinites leave on their curbs may soon have a counterpart – a green organics collection bin. While a citywide compost pickup program boasts obvious environmental benefits, it would come at a cost to taxpayers, and that is a conflict that City Council will be wrestling with as it prepares to adopt the city budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

A discussion at a Council Public Utilities Committee meeting on Aug. 19 revealed doubt among some members about moving forward with the plan as proposed.

“We are going back to our constituents again in this affordability crisis and telling them that they’re going to have to spend $50 a year on this new program,” said Council Member Ellen Troxclair. “I, of course, have a lot of hesitation about that, especially knowing that not everyone will participate in the program, but that they’re going to be charged regardless.”

Troxclair was referring to the $49.20 annual cost of the plan to the typical residential ratepayer once the program reaches full rollout in 2020.

The first year of the five-year plan is included in city management’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget, though it is up to Council whether it will remain so. The total impact to the typical residential ratepayer in the coming fiscal year would be 48 cents. After that, the cost of the program would increase by an average of roughly $12 per year for the typical residential ratepayer through 2020.

The organics collection program, which is currently in a limited pilot phase, applies only to curbside collection and would not be available to residents of apartment complexes and other large multifamily developments.

If expanded, the program would augment the current yard trimmings pickup with collection of food waste, food-soiled paper and wood not used for construction, with the expectation of increasing organics collection from 27,000 tons to 79,000 tons in 2020.

According to a recent study, 46.3 percent of Austin curbside trash consists of organic materials.

Troxclair expressed interest in an “opt-in” version of the program where customers could choose to participate and pay for the service.

Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert said that he is open to considering such a plan but that it would present “efficiency challenges,” since the same trucks currently providing yard trimmings collection would also pick up organics. “We’re already traveling every street right now, and we would travel the same miles under this proposed program,” he said.

By 2020, Gedert said, ARR expects it would provide services to 100 percent of households and that those households, through recycling and organics collection, would be diverting about 75 percent of their waste from landfills. That is a major goal set out in the city’s Zero Waste Strategic Plan, which Council adopted in 2009.

Gedert said that by 2020, he expects the program would cost $9.3 million, which would be partially offset by $1.1 million in landfill expense savings, making for a net cost of $8.2 million.

Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget, tax rate and utility rates on Thursday.

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