The Road to Zero Waste: SSO Superheroes in Austin
June 7, 2012
Organic materials comprise “up to 40% of residential trash cans,” according to Ochoa Gonzalez, so the city must fully devote itself to the ultimate Source Separated Organics (SSO) goal: complete diversion of all organic waste from landfills. To that end, Austin will institute curbside organics collection within the next several years.
Establishing a third cart for organics collection in a city of nearly one million is a big commitment, and Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) – the city department in charge of Zero Waste efforts – has already started work. Indeed, while the city works through permitting and logistics, ARR has launched programs to educate its citizens, create grassroots support for SSO and provide a blueprint for other cities to follow.
“Building support for an effort as large and important as this one is something like a romance,” Ochoa Gonzalez says. “People hear about organics and they start to become interested, but it typically takes about seven repetitions of learning about the issue before they’re willing to take action.”
That’s why Austin has focused – first and foremost – on education. The city hosts a comprehensive website that outlines where organic materials fit into the goal of Zero Waste and offers free composting classes at various locations three to five times per week. Classes are hour-long, hands-on demonstrations that empower participants to go home and start composting immediately.
In 2010, about 700 people attended composting classes; that number swelled to 2,000 people the next year. Now that most residents who were previously interested in organics have taken the class, Austin faces a new challenge: Reaching those who are not as aware of the benefits of composting. To achieve this goal, the city has made classes more accessible, including posting videos online in both English and Spanish. Attendees receive a free kitchen compost collector and become eligible to participate in a larger program called the “Home Composting Rebate Challenge.”
As organizers worked to develop curbside organics collection in Austin, they realized that the most efficient use of food and yard debris is backyard composting. For those without room for a compost heap, the third cart is coming, but Austin Resource Recovery wants to encourage as many people to compost at home as possible.
To help promote backyard composting, the department established the “Home Composting Rebate Challenge,” a program that allows residents who meet certain criteria to redeem up to $75 towards the cost of a home composting system. To qualify for the rebate, residents are required to downsize their regular trash cart to a 32-gallon bin, take one of the aforementioned home composting classes and purchase a home composting system. The program aims to give residents a little extra financial incentive to make the jump into composting.
“Sometimes people need a carrot dangled in front of them to overcome inertia,” says Ochoa Gonzalez. “For us, it’s a lot of fun to be part of that carrot.”
Ochoa Gonzalez and other city organizers have invested a great deal of time and effort establishing the various SSO programs in Austin. However, when it comes to identifying the true driving force behind organics diversion – and the larger Zero Waste goal – Ochoa Gonzalez points to community activism as the source of success: Passionate Austinites came together to create a green movement, and they are building support to raise awareness and drive legislation.
“Composting classes and the Home Composting Rebate Challenge are just a few ways the city says thank you to residents who have dedicated themselves to making Austin greener,” Ochoa Gonzalez says. “They have shown that individual citizens can make a difference in any city.”
With a pilot third cart curbside organics collection program slated to begin in select Austin neighborhoods in 2013, the city seems well on its way to a long-term romance with organics. If the pilot proves successful, residents can expect a city-wide program by 2016.