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Zero Waste Advisory Commission reassembles C&D ordinance subcommittee

Tuesday, January 19, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

At its Jan. 13 meeting, the Zero Waste Advisory Commission discussed the Construction and Demolition Recycling Ordinance, a law that went into effect in 2016.

The ordinance mandates that building permits with more than 5,000 square feet of new, added or remodeled floor area divert at least half of the construction project debris from the landfill. An alternative requirement is that builders dispose of no more than 2.5 pounds of material per square foot of floor area in the landfill.

The law also requires contractors to submit a construction recycling report online showing how many tons of construction debris were recycled and how many were sent to a landfill. It carves out exceptions for projects involving hazardous materials like lead or asbestos.

The ordinance was adopted as a part of a broader Zero Waste Strategic Plan adopted in 2008 that aims to divert 90 percent of waste from landfills and incinerators by 2040.

According to the city’s website, Austin aims to be “the national zero waste leader in the transformation from traditional integrated waste collection to sustainable resource recovery.”

The commission voted to reconvene the C&D Ordinance Reform Subcommittee to evaluate the impacts of the law since it was implemented.

In 2015, when the ordinance was still being developed, Woody Raine, a zero-waste planner with Austin Resource Recovery, told City Council that diverting debris would cost around $20 per ton, adding between 5 and 18 cents per square foot to the cost of building a new multifamily structure, an estimate that substantiated the cost concerns for demolition contractors at the time.

Many of the same concerns were echoed at the commission meeting last week.

Adam Gregory, representing Texas Disposal Systems, said while the city has made strides toward reducing its environmental impact, the ordinance is worth revisiting. He said if Austin’s C&D Recycling Program is going to have a chance of success, it’s time to scrutinize it more fully and assess the impacts, “both good and bad.”

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Gregory said under the current ordinance, the primary issues revolve not around environmental sustainability, but enforcement for bad actors. Skirting regulations is one way firms can save on operational costs, meaning that adhering to the law puts firms at a competitive disadvantage.

“Under this ordinance, when any company operates in a substandard manner environmentally, they save money by cheating the system,” he said. “If you’re trying to operate honestly, you have to spend more money to do so. It’s an unfair competitive market.”

At the meeting, Commissioner Gerry Acuna noted the issues with the current system when he said, “Yes, there has to be some revisions made to (the ordinance) – some consistency with not just the reporting, but the actual environmental challenges that we could be facing later on down the road.”

From there, the commission moved to formally reconvene the subcommittee. Commissioners Amanda Masino, Ian Steyaert and Cathy Gattuso volunteered to lead the effort and start discussions about improvements next month.

Gregory closed his comment with a positive message: “(Texas Disposal Systems) is eager to participate with the subcommittee, the staff and other stakeholders to address the current deficiencies in the ordinance and in the program overall.”

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