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A less trashy Austin: Zero Waste program reduces what goes into our landfills

We modern Americans create a lot of waste — by contrast, our ancestors left behind very little. 

Nearly every scrap of food was eaten, if not by humans then by their animals, and the rest composted back into the soil. Broken things were mended. Barely 50 years ago, people bought few packaged goods. They drank coffee at home, in a cup that they washed, and bought bars of soap, not plastic containers of body wash.

Bottled drinks came in glass bottles that were returnable — and they weren't nearly as popular as they are now. Water came from the tap, water fountains or, on my childhood camping trips, a five-gallon container.

Today, Americans produce, on average, nearly 4.5 pounds of waste per day, per person, according to the EPA.

 Barely 50 years ago, people bought few packaged goods. They drank coffee at home, in a cup that they washed, and bought bars of soap, not plastic containers of body wash.

The vast majority of this is packaging for hard goods and food, papers and plastic beverage containers, and it all ends up in our area landfills — the rest lies along roadsides, in parks and in creeks, as litter.

Landfills are expensive to create and maintain, and they come with a host of environmental problems, from chemicals leaching into groundwater to gases escaping into the air. In fact, according to the city, landfills are one of the largest sources of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 to 75 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In 2009, the Austin City Council passed a Zero Waste Plan with the goal of reducing the amount of waste sent to area landfills 90 percent by 2040. Austin Resource Recovery — the new, snazzier name slapped on the former Solid Waste Services department — set the bar higher, shooting for that 90 percent reduction by 2030.

In Dec. 2011, the Council approved a Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan that looks at how to achieve this drastic reduction.

In this context, waste isn’t the same thing as trash. Trash means something that is useless; if something can still be used, or recycled, then throwing it away is, in effect, wasting it.

 The idea, then, is to act like our ancestors and waste as little as possible. According to the Austin Resource Recovery department, folks in Austin dispose of an estimated $11 million in reusuable items annually.

The idea, then, is to act like our ancestors and waste as little as possible. According to the Austin Resource Recovery department, folks in Austin dispose of an estimated $11 million in reusuable items annually. We need to use less, then re-use, recycle and compost as much as we can. Only what remains once we’ve done all that can be considered trash.

The Zero Waste master plan includes a wide range of programs and services to help our city reduce waste. For example, Austin Resource Recovery will support research to reduce and redesign packaging, and will implement citywide purchasing preferences for products containing high levels of post-consumer recycled material.

The plan calls for establishing reuse centers and drop-off facilities to recover recyclable, reusable and repairable materials.

More than 47 percent of materials currently going to landfills are organics — things that will decompose, such as yard trimmings, food-soiled paper and food scraps. A pilot program will collect organics at the curb and encourage home composting. The city will enhance existing recycling programs and initiate new ones to divert more materials, including increasing recycling collection to once a week, and establish pilot programs for hard-to-recycle materials such as mattresses and carpet.

The plan also calls for expanded hours for the city’s hazardous waste drop-off facility (good news for those of us who’ve tried to use it), a door-to-door hazardous waste collection pilot and an increase in retail take-back partnerships. The city’s closed landfill on FM 812 will be redeveloped into an eco-industrial park, locating major re-manufacturing facilities next to processors of recycled materials.

And yes, the controversial proposed ban on single-use plastic bags is also part of the plan.

 Meanwhile, why wait? We can all start reducing the amount of waste we create.

In addition to less emission of greenhouse gases from landfills, the Zero Waste approach reduces the greenhouses gases created by consumption of energy to extract, process and transport virgin raw materials. The plan could reduce Austin’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 800,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. It could also generate as many as 5,000 local green jobs in recycling and organics collection and processing, materials reuse and repair, and remanufacturing.

Meanwhile, why wait? We can all start reducing the amount of waste we create by buying products made to last, buying in bulk, choosing products with longer lifespans (re-usable shopping bags and water bottles, for example), avoiding over-packaged goods and selecting those packaged in recycled and recyclable materials, donating unwanted items, composting and recycling.

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