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Why don’t Austin parks have recycling bins?

Friday, July 15, 2016 by Jack Craver

All commercial properties in Austin will be required by October of next year to have on-site recycling containers, but the same is not true of all properties owned by the government that put the requirement in place.

The Parks and Recreation Department, the city agency one might expect to embrace green living most fervently, has only begun to provide recycling at its outdoor facilities. In a Wednesday briefing to the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, department staff reported that only one of the city’s 300 parks has recycling containers. In relative terms, the situation at the city’s pools is much better: Two of 51 have on-site recycling.

“There is no intent not to provide the service,” explained Jessica King, division manager for Austin Resource Recovery, the department that oversees the city’s recycling efforts. But a “severe” lack of funding and limited parks staff make implementation difficult, she said.

Implementing recycling in city buildings, where the demand is constant (because there are constantly people), and where permanent custodial staff can regularly empty the bins, has been relatively straightforward. It’s a very different story for the hundreds of thousands of acres of city parkland, much of which is rarely monitored by staff.

While there are no concrete plans for how many parks will ultimately get recycling bins and when they would be put in place, King told the Austin Monitor that the focus will be on getting containers into the highest-trafficked spaces. She touted the fact that special events, such as the Trail of Lights, are now typically equipped with recycling containers.

The goal is not necessarily to get recycling bins into every park, she explained. A park that doesn’t currently have a trash can won’t get one. Staff is currently in the process, as much as possible, she said, of identifying the best candidates for the coveted containers.

“Our goal is to pair,” she said. “To place a recycling container next to a trash can.”

In the 2015 budget cycle, the Parks Department received $21,875, which it used to purchase 50 recycling containers ($436 per container) that it installed at Zilker Park, Northwest Pool and Northwest Pony Field, explained Assistant Department Director Marty Stump.

The department hopes to further bolster recycling in the upcoming budget cycle by requesting six additional full-time employees and a one-time capital cost of $150,000 to pay for containers. That’s a drop in the bucket for a department that employs 703 full-time workers and operates on a budget of roughly $83.5 million.

Members of the commission listening to the presentation generally reacted favorably to the work King and Stump described. Commissioner Cathy Gattuso empathized with PARD’s funding and staffing limits and suggested the department seek help from neighborhoods in their effort.

“I know you all are stretched,” she said.

Andrew Dobbs, regional director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, hardly saw any reason to celebrate.

“This is unacceptable, where we’re at right now,” he told the commission. “What I see here is a philosophy of ‘do as we say, not as we do.’”

The excuses — lack of funding and staff — presented by the city could easily be used by businesses, he said. And yet, if the leader of a major apartment company told the commission that only 2 percent of the company’s properties had recycling, “we would say that that was unacceptable,” said Dobbs.

“In fact, they could be subject to citation and civil penalties,” he added.

The department could accomplish its goals, he said, if it made recycling a priority, pointing out that in its budget request, the department listed recycling 26th on its list of needs.

Talking to the Monitor, King said she understood the frustrations Dobbs expressed but also acknowledged that the parks system may have more pressing needs to address.

A complete list of Austin Monitor donors can be found here. Photo by Mwyzykowski0821Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35521811

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