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Austin, Texas, set a zero waste goal in 2010 to divert 90 percent of all materials generated in the city away from local landfills by 2040. To reach that goal, the city’s solid waste services department, Austin Resource Recovery (ARR), created and implemented numerous programs and policies.

ARR provides curbside recycling and trash service to about 200,000 homes and 2,200 small businesses in the city. ARR’s customers generate less than 15 percent of the materials discarded in Austin. The city does not provide dumpster-based service; all commercial properties, including businesses and multifamily properties, must contract with a private hauler that is licensed through the Austin Code Department. Licensed haulers control more than 85 percent of the materials generated in the city.

Universal Recycling Ordinance

To achieve Austin’s zero waste goal, the business community must fully participate to maximize diversion. Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO) is the main policy tool to influence participation of commercial businesses and haulers.

In 2012, the city began implementing the URO, requiring affected property owners to ensure tenants and employees have convenient access to recycling. Following a multiyear phase-in affecting the largest properties first, the URO will be implemented fully in October 2019. Failure to comply with the ordinance may result in fines of between $100 and $2,000 per day, per deficiency.

The recycling ordinance has five minimum requirements:

  1. sufficient recycling capacity;
  2. convenient access to recycling (a recycling service point within 25 feet of a trash service point);
  3. tenants and employees have the ability to recycle at least five materials;
  4. proper signs are posted, and tenants and employees receive recycling education within 30 days of hire or move-in as well as annually; and
  5. Annual Diversion Plan submission online to report how the property meets these requirements.

Currently, the URO affects more than 6,000 properties in Austin, including any business that does not receive curbside trash and recycling service from ARR, such as retail, medical, industrial and food service establishments; private and charter schools; and apartments and condominiums. ARR’s Business Outreach Team (BOT) provides education to these property owners and managers.

Research and pilot projects

ARR conducted a comprehensive, citywide diversion study in 2015, finding that commercial and multifamily properties are responsible for more than 85 percent of all materials generated within city limits. The study confirmed the importance of diversion efforts in the business community and the need to ensure 100 percent of properties have the information and resources needed not only to comply with the URO but also to implement and maintain successful recycling programs.

ARR staff regularly conducts other research projects and pilot programs to understand how to address specific challenges and target outreach in the business community, including:

  • a restaurant organics recycling pilot in 2011 to understand the feasibility of implementing an organics diversion component of the URO;
  • a multifamily waste composition study in 2013;
  • a multifamily move-in/move-out pilot at an off-campus university complex in 2016;
  • an organics baseline study in 2016 to understand current diversion efforts among food permitted businesses;
  • regularly benchmarking best practices and initiatives from other communities; and
  • tracking marketing, advertising and outreach efforts to determine communication reach and effectiveness.

Business resources

Since 2011, ARR’s BOT has provided outreach to specific audiences, including property owners and managers, multifamily tenants, employees and licensed haulers. Educational materials shared include information about zero waste best practices, requirements of the URO, case studies and other free online resources. The BOT started with two team members and a manager. Today, we have a staff of 10 professionals, plus two contractors, to help influence more than 17,500 properties and businesses.

The BOT helps businesses effectively manage their material streams and find cost-effective ways to comply with the URO through a variety of free resources, including:

  • rebates to help businesses accelerate and expand diversion efforts;
  • online educational templates and signs in seven languages;
  • technical guides and tip sheets;
  • Signmaker, an online customizable sign tool available at www.austintexas.gov/signmaker;
  • on-site technical assistance, zero waste assessments and training;
  • starter kits, including example recycling bins and signs;
  • “Lunch & Learn” training sessions and presentations in English and Spanish; and
  • online videos about the basics of the URO, Annual Diversion Plan completion and Austin’s 2015 Community Diversion Study.

The BOT also works with licensed, private haulers to provide education and resources that include:

  • URO training for sales representatives;
  • a “URO Technical Guide”; and
  • 18-inch bilingual dumpster decals indicating stream type.

In addition to these free resources, the BOT increases awareness about the URO and diversion opportunities through:

  • tabling at public outreach events;
  • leveraging partnerships with industry organizations;
  • presenting at local business and community association meetings;
  • direct mail and email reminders about annual deadlines;
  • targeted digital, search engine optimization and marketing; radio, social media and print advertising; and native articles;
  • a shared phone line and email address to provide customer service; and
  • a Zero Waste Professional Certificate program to increase the number of zero waste experts in Austin available to assist businesses.

Another of the key success factors has been a consistent emphasis on building a business case for diverting material away from the landfill. Rather than focusing on compliance and penalties, ARR staff works collaboratively with the business community to help find cost-effective solutions to their unique challenges. The goal is zero waste, not citations and fines.

Measuring success

The success of the URO implementation is because of numerous factors, including tracked performance metrics and optimiziation of advertising, proactive outreach emphasizing the business case for recycling, aligning messaging and values with numerous city of Austin departments and sharing resources with other communities. These efforts are possible because of the support of the ARR executive team.

A key aspect of the BOT is our commitment to rigorously measuring efforts and results. Being able to show results helps ensure continued executive team support for business outreach and education programs. The ultimate indicator of success is determined by whether we are influencing the community to make behavioral changes that result in less material being sent to local landfills as measured through comprehensive studies to determine the city’s diversion rate.

Waste characterization studies are conducted to better understand the types and amounts of materials disposed in and diverted from Austin’s waste stream; however, measuring the amount of recyclables being sent to landfills is difficult and costly. Therefore, ARR’s Master Plan calls for measurement every five years. To understand progress between waste studies, we measure the following external measures monthly and annually:

  • the umber of business contacts;
  • the percentage of Annual Diversion Plan submissions;
  • the number of events attended and presentations given; and
  • the Diversion Rate Study, the next of which will be in 2020.

We also measure the following internal measures:

  • talk time on the shared phone line;
  • the number of contacts through the shared email inbox; and
  • completion of team projects/intiatives.

Making the business case

By demonstrating how practicing waste prevention, reusing products, making environmentally conscious purchases and recycling waste and organics, the BOT not only helps businesses meet the URO, we also help cut costs, increase profits and help the environment by extending landfill life and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

By showing that recycling can lead to costs savings, property owners can use their environmentally friendly label to increase tenant engagement, improve public relations and gain a competitive edge over their competition in the community.

One way staff demonstrates that effective materials management practices are good for a business’ bottom line is by developing and sharing case studies. For example, a sorority house is leading the way in the University of Texas Greek community by using compost collection services and encouraging other houses to adopt and use the same service route. Another example includes a low-income apartment complex that used rebate funds to purchase in-unit recycling containers to bolster and encourage recycling at the property.

Collaborating and reinforcing

Our team also collaborates with other communities, pursuing purposeful transparency and openly sharing resources and insights. Sharing approaches helps staff develop and adapt resources and messaging to increase outreach effectiveness within the business community.

Partnering with other city of Austin departments helps ensure clear communication and avoids duplication of efforts. ARR staff works closely with Public Works, Planning and Zoning, Development Services, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Office of Innovation, Austin Code, Parks and Recreation, Office of Sustainability, Austin Energy Green Building, 3-1-1 and many others to help communicate our message and speak to the business community with one voice.

Toward the future

ARR intends to continue increasing outreach tactics and metrics to ensure commercial and multifamily properties are given the opportunity to learn about the URO.

In fiscal year 2016, the URO’s Annual Diversion Plan maintained a submission rate of more than 90 percent from the previous year, even with a 33 percent increase in affected properties.

Last fiscal year, on average, our team provided URO and zero waste best practices to more than 300 contacts each month.

The intent of the URO is for commercial and multifamily properties to implement effective recycling and landfill diversion programs. Smart, passionate and dedicated staff are key in assisting businesses in overcoming potential challenges associated with providing convenient and clear access to recycling. The combination of dedicated staff, a strong policy tool and proactive and robust outreach contribute to the successful implementation of diversion efforts in Austin.

The author is environmental program specialist at Austin Resource Recovery. She can be contacted by email at madelyn.morgan@austintexas.gov.