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Citywide compost pickup plan faces resistance

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Based on comments that a few City Council members made at Thursday’s budget work session, it appears that a proposed citywide, curbside organics collection rollout could get transformed into an opt-in program – if it remains in the forthcoming city budget at all.

“I think it’s great for people who want to use it,” said Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who proposed a subscription-based alternative in the budget concept menu.

Since that discussion, Austin Resource Recovery Department staff has recommended against such a model, leaving what looks to be an all-or-nothing decision on the table for Council to consider.

In response to a budget question from Council Member Ellen Troxclair, department staff wrote on Friday that converting to an opt-in model would cause the city to fail in meeting its long-term waste reduction goals and make subscribing to the program “cost prohibitive” to many Austinites.

“The value judgment before Council is the comparison of the benefits of organics collection to the cost of program expansion and implementation,” staff concluded in its response.

The program, which is currently in a limited pilot phase in specific areas throughout the city, would be an expansion of the yard trimmings pickup program available to all curbside customers. It would not apply to residents of apartment complexes or other large multifamily developments with dumpster services.

Austin Resource Recovery Department Director Bob Gedert said at an Aug. 19 Council Public Utilities Committee meeting that the program would cost the typical residential ratepayer about 48 cents in Fiscal Year 2015-16. That would ramp up as the program rolls out, however, reaching $49.20 to service all curbside-eligible households in Fiscal Year 2019-20.

At the same time, Gedert said, the program would increase the annual amount of organics that the city keeps out of landfills from 27,000 tons of yard trimmings to 79,000 tons of trimmings, food waste, food-soiled paper and non-construction wood. That would help the city reach a goal outlined in its Zero Waste Strategic Plan of diverting 75 percent of waste from landfills by 2020.

In its response, department staff asserted that many residents could recover or offset the projected costs of the program by reducing the size of their trash carts as they get used to placing more of their waste in the proposed green organics bins.

According to staff, while the program would cost the typical residential ratepayer an additional $4.10 per month in 2020, switching from a 96-gallon to a 64-gallon cart would save $18.55 per month, switching from a 64-gallon to a 32-gallon cart would save $5.15 per month and switching from a 32-gallon to a 24-gallon cart would save $1.25 per month.

Andrew Dobbs, program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, said Thursday that 74.5 percent of curbside customers have either a 96-gallon or 64-gallon cart. “For most Austin Resource Recovery customers, they’re going to save money, like actual dollars and cents on their bills, because of this program,” he said.

Council Member Ora Houston was critical of this argument. “When you say they’ll save money – I’m at the smallest trash can now, so I’ll still have to pay,” she said. “I’m on a fixed income, so I have to speak for those on a fixed income. Every little dollar-and-a-half adds up.”

Troxclair expanded on Houston’s statement. “Fifty dollars a year is a really tough sell for people on fixed incomes, or others who aren’t going to use it, or others who are already composting on their own and would be paying double for a similar service,” she said.

Dobbs responded that the program would still benefit those who compost on their own because the city would be able to accept items that most people cannot compost in their yards.

Council Member Pio Renteria asserted that the department is already having trouble keeping up with yard trimmings pickup in his neighborhood. “I have a feeling that it’s not going to be a successful program,” he said. “I’m really struggling on trying to support this particular program. If I don’t get any good answers … I probably will be voting against it.”

Department staff members acknowledged in their response that flooding and rain in the spring “caused delays that decreased customer satisfaction significantly” and noted that it returned to full service by July 31. They went on to argue that their current proposal would “add in the flexibility of responding to storm events more quickly and efficiently without interruption of other services.”

Council Member Don Zimmerman said that he is opposed to the program altogether.

Council Member Leslie Pool, on the other hand, was adamant in her support of the proposal, arguing that pursuing an opt-in program would be “rolling back progress” in organics pickup and composting.

Council will begin adopting the budget on Sept. 8.

Photo by SITS Girls [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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