Note: Thanks to Andrew Dobbs and the Texas Campaign for the Environment for this reminder of how important it is that Austin protect its composting program.
Budget season is upon us with Austin’s first 10-1 City Council, and there is robust debate right now over our priorities as a city. Austin’s commitment to environmental protection should have broad support, but one of the most crucial pieces of Austin’s sustainability vision is currently threatened: curbside composting. We need progressive Austin residents to make the argument to Mayor Steve Adler and the Council that ALL of Austin needs composting.
A majority of what we throw away is organic waste. When this is put into a landfill it decomposes without oxygen, producing methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times as powerful as CO2 over a 20 year period, and it is highly flammable. This makes landfills major sources of climate change gases on the one hand and susceptible to dangerous underground fires on the other. Add to this the fact that organic waste is a source of most of the major nuisances of landfills generally—stench, rodents, and other pests—and any means of keeping organics out of the landfills is a good idea.
Austin’s Resource Recovery (ARR) Department (what used to be known as “solid waste” before we adopted our Zero Waste plan) already collects yard waste. Since 2013, ARR has piloted a three bin system—trash, recycling, compost—at more than 14,000 homes. This allows Austinites to add food waste and food-soiled paper such as pizza boxes in with their yard waste into a wheeled cart. Collections can then be mechanized.
They have learned important lessons about what kinds of bins people want, how to minimize some of the less pleasant parts of sorting food waste, and how to educate the public to use the carts. Now they are ready to roll this system out to all residential customers. This is a big deal—when it is fully implemented by 2020 at the latest Austin’s residential customers will finally go from wasting most of our discards to diverting most of them to higher and better use.
This system will be paid for the same way we pay for trash and recycling—through a fee to Austin Resource Recovery. There won’t be a separate fee for composting, it will be rolled into your normal solid waste service costs, and by the time the program is fully implemented the total cost will be—at most–$4.10 a month. That’s less than a small, plain serving at Amy’s Ice Creams, less than two breakfast tacos at Torchy’s. What’s even better is that with less stuff for the trash can, the vast majority of Resource Recovery customers will be able to drop a trash bin size and save as much as $14.45 a month over and on top of this fee. It’s rare that a new cost actually creates savings for individual customers, but composting will change the economics of waste in Austin in a big way.
Unfortunately, some on Council aren’t willing to support even this common sense investment. They want to make organics collection a subscription-only service, so those who do the right thing by diverting more will pay a premium. . This is a violation of our values as a city, and it is a system that has been tried in other cities and failed. Seattle and San Francisco tried subscription services and they couldn’t meet their diversion goals—they switched to citywide service. Even San Antonio has tried the subscription-only modelbut starting next month they will be rolling organics collection to all of their customers. If San Antonio can do this, why not Austin?
We need you to send a message to Mayor Steve Adler and to your councilmember today telling them to support curbside composting citywide. The form linked here will automatically email your specific councilmember, and afterwards it will give you a phone list so that you can call their offices too. If you supported them, voted for them, or belong to clubs or organizations which endorse, please add that to your message! Let them know that you’ll be watching, and that you want curbside for all of Austin.
Compost service isn’t a luxury any more than trash or recycling are—there’s a reason we provide those services to everybody. If we fail to provide composting to all, we will surrender on our Zero Waste goals, on our climate goals, and on our commitment to sustainability. Let Council know that you take these visions seriously, and reach out to them on this important issue today!
Andrew Dobbs is the Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. He was one of the earliest contributors to Burnt Orange Report, first writing for the site in 2003.