Council approves new recycling standards for construction material
Tuesday, November 24, 2015 by Jack Craver
In a victory for environmentalists, City Council voted Thursday to approve an ordinance that sets limits on the amount of material from a construction or demolition site that can go to waste.
The ordinance, which passed 8-3, with Council members Sheri Gallo, Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman in opposition, requires those involved in a construction or demolition project to meet one of two standards aimed at minimizing waste. They must either dispose of less than 2.5 pounds of material per square foot of the project or divert at least 50 percent of the project material to a “beneficial use.”
The new requirements will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2016, for projects exceeding 5,000 square feet of new, added or remodeled floor area. The law will go into effect for any
residential or commercial project requiring a demolition permit on Oct. 1, 2019.
An amendment to the ordinance from Council Member Greg Casar also put in place goals to tighten the restrictions on waste in the future. The stated goals would reduce the allowable amount of waste per square foot to 1.5 pounds in 2020 and 0.5 pounds in 2030, as well as raise the required percentage of diverted material to 75 percent in 2020 and 95 percent in 2030. For the time being, they remain just goals; they will be implemented only if they are approved by Council in the future.
Andrew Dobbs, program director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the ordinance was a crucial step toward meeting the Zero Waste Strategic Plan adopted by the city in 2009 and that it would create economic opportunities in the recycling industry.
“This is about 10 percent of the material that we’re generating in this city,” Dobbs said. “This is stuff that we can now start to capture, create a lot of value, create a lot of opportunities for jobs and for businesses and for wealth creation here in the city of Austin.”
A previous incarnation of the ordinance had included automatic increases in the recycling thresholds for 2020 and 2030. While the Zero Waste Advisory Commission recommended the benchmarks, the Planning Commission urged their removal from the ordinance.
Dobbs advocated for reinstating the automatic threshold increases, which he called “visionary.” He suggested that a future Council will be able to reduce the standards if it becomes clear in the coming years that they are infeasible. But if the city is serious about accomplishing its zero waste vision, he argued, it should set ambitious goals.
“(The standards) anticipate cultural and economic and technological advances that if we don’t have by then, we’re going to be in some trouble anyways,” Dobbs said.
But Ross Rathgeber, vice president of Southwest Destructors, said that while he supported the 50 percent recycling requirements, the goals for 2020 and 2030 were unrealistic.
“It was explained to me that it’s aspirational,” Rathgeber said. “I can tell you, you can aspire all you want to, but you’re not going to get there.” The city should do some “serious studies” before it raises recycling thresholds again, he said.
Casar’s amendment sought to reconcile the feasibility concerns raised by Rathgeber with the ambitious environmental goals. “What I’m trying to get at is some sort of meeting between the two,” Casar said. “We still maintain the baseline expectation that we’re trying as aggressively as possible to get to those stair steps, but we don’t implement them without affirmative vote.”
Gallo said she would support the ordinance but not if it included Casar’s amendment, saying that the unamended version had been unanimously supported by the Planning Commission as well as OK’d by the Open Spaces Committee.
“I’m uncomfortable supporting changes to something that went through those two entities already,” she said.
The only other opposition expressed came from Council’s two most conservative members, Troxclair and Zimmerman. The latter characteristically denounced the proposal as a government overreach.
“It’s going to be unaffordable, it’s going to provide virtually no benefit, provide a surprisingly high cost, it’s going to contribute to our unaffordability,” said Zimmerman. “It takes our city in exactly the wrong direction, and it’s really frustrating for me to sit here and watch this happen.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the 2019 effective date applies to commercial, not residential, demolition.
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