Austin Testing Composting for Multi-Family Homes

Pilot Program Supports Austin's Zero Waste Goal

By Kaiba White

The City of Austin has a goal of achieving zero waste by 2040, with zero waste defined as keeping at least 90% of discarded material out of the landfill. It’s a laudable goal, but one that has proven elusive.

One barrier is that those living in multifamily properties don’t have access to the same city solid waste services at those who live in single family homes, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes. A recently-announced pilot program for composting at multifamily properties is the first step to fixing that problem.

As of September 2019, three quarters of the residences that receive city solid waste services through Austin Resource Recovery are provided composting service. Each customer received a new green cart for organics collection, along with information from the department about how to use the new service. Organics are collected weekly, on the same day as landfill trash.

Composting is important, in part, because organic waste – including food, paper and wood – is converted into methane in landfills. This happens because the material is breaking down without the presence of oxygen in a process called anaerobic decomposition. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that has 86 times more warming potential over 20 years than carbon dioxide, so limiting it is important for controlling climate change. Composting, when done correctly, is an aerobic decomposition process because piles or rows of material are turned periodically to ensure that oxygen is available. This greatly reduces the impact on climate change. The other benefit of composting is that it returns valuable nutrients to the soil when the end product is used in landscaping and gardens.

While Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance requires multi-family properties (those with 5 or more units) to provide a minimum level of recycling service, the ordinance doesn’t currently require organics (or composting) service. As a result, very few properties provide it.

The Zero Waste Advisory Commission has recognized this as a fundamental flaw that will prevent Austin from meeting its zero waste goal. The commission worked staff in the Austin Resource Recovery department and stakeholders to examine solutions. City staff decided that a pilot program, utilizing private haulers, would be the first step to closing this loophole in Austin’s waste policy.

The pilot will include up to 20 properties, which will be selected to ensure a good balance of different property characteristics, including size, rental rates, geography, building type and how solid waste services are provided (i.e. valet or shared carts). Both apartments and condominiums are eligible to participate.

Austin Resource Recovery, along with volunteers that are part of the department’s Zero Waste Blockleaders program will provide educational materials to residents at participating properties. Austin Resource Recovery staff will also be available throughout the pilot to help troubleshoot any challenges that arise. Residents will be able to receive free countertop collection containers as well as compostable bags for their organic waste.

Each property will select what type of organics collection service they want and can contract with any City of Austin licensed private hauler. Property managers will submit all bills for the service to Austin Resource Recovery for reimbursement, making the pilot free for participants. Applications are due February 1 and the pilot will run March through August. More details and the application are available here.

Surveys will be collected from property managers and residents during and after the pilot. This information will be used by Austin Resource Recovery staff and the Zero Waste Advisory Commission to modify the Universal Recycling Ordinance or other city regulations to help prevent organic waste from multi-family properties from being dumped  in landfills. Public input will be encouraged throughout that process.