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Affordability may mean dealing honestly with trash

Friday, February 15, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Austin’s growth is putting a strain on the city’s waste collection service provider, Austin Resource Recovery, as it struggles to keep costs down for customers.

Results of the Residential Solid Waste Affordability Study, presented to the Zero Waste Advisory Committee at its November 2018 meeting, indicate that Austin residents are receiving more disposal and recycling services than residents of other large and medium-sized Texas cities and they are also paying higher monthly fees. Additionally, all Austin residents pay a monthly $8.95 Clean Community Fee that goes toward additional disposal services, environmental cleanup and community outreach.

According to ZWAC Chair Gerry Acuna, the study suggests that affordability of solid waste services needs to be addressed. Acuna brought a resolution to the board’s Wednesday evening meeting that simultaneously addresses the needs for both greater efficiency and affordability as the city grows.

The resolution proposed the combined strategy of bringing a recycling drop-off center to North Austin to continue the city’s effort diverting waste away from landfills with the addition of a waste transfer center to save ARR time and money.

The suggestion of a North Austin drop-off center was well-received on the dais. ARR currently has only one such location, the Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center, located in Southeast Austin at the intersection of Todd Lane and Business Center Drive. The center accepts household hazardous waste, electronics, tires, yard trimmings and paint for free or a small charge depending on the materials.

Commissioner Amanda Masino said the value of bringing a drop-off center to North Austin goes beyond short-term financial calculations because it is such a necessary community resource.

“What that means to me is that people are not storing paint cans in their garage anymore and inhaling those volatile organic compounds,” Masino said. “It might cost more per person in the city on a bill, but over time, I am not exaggerating when saying that could be someone’s life.”

The resolution’s allure lessened, however, when ARR interim director Sam Angoori announced that a similar center in Northeast Austin has been in the works since 2011 and is now on the “fast track.” Angoori said the site would address household hazardous waste concerns while also serving as a location for the deployment of vehicles to North Austin.

Acuna stressed that North Austin still needs a place to put its waste and save ARR time. A transfer station, he said, would serve as a temporary solution to the unavoidable problem that only 38 percent of Austin residents are currently engaged in recycling.

“Recycling is my passion,” Acuna said. “We have to pick up the educational component, we have to make people understand the benefits of (recycling); that’s not going to happen overnight. The goal is to at least have an efficient transportation service for our disposal needs as we’re increasing our diversion goals.”

Andrew Dobbs, program director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, said it would be “an absolute tragedy if the Zero Waste Advisory Commission were to endorse the construction of new waste facilities in the Austin area.” Dobbs has long been an advocate for the city to move closer to its zero-waste goal by minimizing its use of landfills. The goal, adopted by City Council in December 2011, is to be reliably diverting 90 percent of waste away from landfills by 2040.

Acuna framed the proposal as a way to save city residents money on their monthly bills. A transfer station in North Austin, he said, would save on ARR’s transportation costs. Those savings could then be passed along to customers.

Dobbs said the connection to affordability was tenuous. “By my own calculations, we’re talking about $10 per year, tops, that we could save. And I don’t think that there’s anybody out there that really wants to live in Austin but is just $10 per year short of being able to live here.”

With no support for the transfer station on the dais, Acuna said his goal is simply for ARR staffers to thoroughly evaluate the potential benefits of a North Austin location. “The resolution is being presented for literally just one reason, to ensure that the ratepayers of Austin are getting the most cost-effective, efficient, environmentally sound programs possible.”

“That’s great,” Dobbs said. “Take out the transfer station and everything else is fine.” Trying to put a transfer station anywhere in North Austin, he said, will start a fight lasting years. “We will be on the front lines of that, and I really don’t want to have to cost the city millions of dollars in that battle.”

The committee made several attempts to change the resolution language to avoid explicit reference to a transfer station but failed to make progress. The item was tabled indefinitely.

“Just trying to save money,” Acuna said.

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