What’s In Our Trash?

The hard truths about Austin’s recycling habits were released Monday in an

The hard truths about Austin’s recycling habits were released Monday in an independent study managed by Austin Resource Recovery that is the first of it’s kind for the city, and the overarching conclusion is that residents need to be doing more.

Despite the fact that 96 percent of Austinites consider themselves recyclers, more than 44 percent of the trash they toss out is recyclable and 46 percent is compostable, according to the Waste Characterization Study conducted by CB&I Environmental and Infrastructure, Inc.

Plastic and paper are the top two recyclable materials thrown into landfills. They make up a combined total of 36 percent (of the 44 percent) of recyclables that are thrown into the trash.

“Nearly every type of paper from a household level is recyclable,” Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert said, “but more than half of the recycled paper from the household is going into the trash cart and not into the recycling cart.”

The sort study involved sifting through trash collected by Austin Resource Recovery from its curbside service. Over the last few years, Austin’s single family households have plateaued at about 40 percent diversion, meaning that only 40 percent of their trash has been diverted from landfills through recycling or composting programs. The City’s goal is to reach 50 percent diversion by the end of the year.

“I think the biggest obstacle [to increasing Austin’s recycling] is people believing they’re living a green lifestyle,” Gedert said, “They are recycling but not to the extent that they could. They know that they’re doing a good thing, and they stop there.”

The study found that more recyclables are going into landfills than are being recycled; about 58,000 tons of recyclable materials are going into landfills each year. Last year, all of those trashed recyclables were worth about $4.7 million, so the city of Austin is losing nearly $5 million in revenue annually by not taking better recycling measures.

Substantial environmental and economic benefits come with Austin moving towards its zero waste goal of 90 percent diversion by 2050. By keeping recyclables out of the landfill, the city could both prevent the release of hundreds of thousands of metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and significantly boost its economy. Last year, Austin’s recycling and reuse industries generated $720 million in economic activity and supported over 2,600 jobs, according to a recent study commissioned by the City of Austin.

“By supporting the recycling and reuse industries,” Gedert said, “Austin can support the creation of hundreds of jobs for those in our community who are struggling economically and who face economic barriers or who lack a post secondary degree.”

This year's waste characterization study is the first of many that will review Austin’s progress towards zero waste. In the future, a sorting study like this one will be completed every five years, to update residents on their progress in developing a more green and sustainable city.

“Every day counts,” Gedert said. “… Austinites: it is up to you to make zero waste a reality for our community. Your choices in your homes and offices will move us forward towards our zero waste goals.”

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The hard truths about Austin’s recycling habits were released Monday in an