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County examines solid waste needs and resources

Thursday, June 27, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Without a statutory requirement to provide waste disposal services, Travis County is reconsidering the best way to deal with waste, both illegal and legal, while increasing recycling rates.

The county initiated an interlocal agreement with the Institute for Government Innovation at Texas State University in March to assess all of the solid waste services currently available to residents and what may be done to fill in existing service gaps and decrease illegal dumping countywide.

For the first part of the project, the institute has identified and verified services at 332 drop-off locations both within and near the county limits. The locations offer recycling and safe disposal services for items ranging from everyday plastics to household hazardous materials, construction debris, electronics and more.

Using that information, the study has found that nearly all county residents live within 15 miles of a center to dispose of or recycle the materials included in the analysis. Even for locations able to dispose of items containing mercury, of which there are only three, 96 percent of residents are still within 15 miles of one of those centers. For electronics recycling, that figure is 99 percent.

In an update Tuesday, Matt Pantuso, project manager at the university institute, said there are on average 30 available locations for each given waste material.

Even so, one of the study’s main concerns is the improper and illegal disposal of materials in the county. To address this, the institute is proposing a twofold approach involving the creation of a county recycling brand and putting more resources into general community education.

Pantuso said the brand could make use of a distinct logo to generate traffic to a county recycling website where people could find a drop-off location map and connect to other resources. The map would allow users to input their address and filter by materials to quickly find the closest and most appropriate drop-off location for their needs.

“When it comes to recycling, convenience is king,” Pantuso said. “Ecological mindset, race, ethnicity, income, all of these other things take a back seat.”

The study recommends creating a social media campaign and encouraging location-based social media engagement, like check-ins at recycling centers, to influence a broader range of residents.

“People are more interested in their network of friends and what they’re telling them they’re doing than paid advertisements when it comes to social media,” Pantuso said.

The focus of the branding and campaign should be to build social interest in recycling and waste disposal rather than pressuring people to do the right thing, Pantuso said. “Social norms are what drive people to change their behavior. Those social normative appeals are going to be more powerful than ecological appeals.”

Still, the institute is encouraging the county to focus a general recycling education initiative to target three main groups of people: residents of multifamily housing, residents of single-family housing and school children. The focus of these efforts is still meant to be social, engaging neighborhoods by nominating and training local block-leaders to influence residents and relying on kids to bring their recycling education home to their families.

Even with proper education, however, recycling bulkier items like tires, mattresses and furniture still requires access to a vehicle or money to pay for transportation, which is a major barrier for some residents.

“I just looked up prices online for having your trash or larger household waste hauled away and it’s kind of expensive,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “I presume that’s why people dump it illegally; they don’t have the money or don’t have the means to haul it all the way to someplace that’s going to charge them to get rid of it.”

Even for those with a vehicle, Pantuso said, the cost of disposing of items is a major deterrent for some. “Anecdotally we’ve heard stories where people will go to a drop-off center, find out there’s a cost, drive down the road and drop the waste.”

Emily Ackland, environmental quality program manager for Transportation and Natural Resources, said the second phase of the study will more thoroughly address the issue of illegal dumping.

“Now that we know where these drop-off locations are located,” she said, the study will be looking at how to “best educate the folks in the areas where we’re seeing a lot of illegal dumping.”

Photo by Ryan Hagerty (Public Domain), Link.

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