Austin, TX gets creative to determine why 'zero waste' plan has stalled
- In an effort to continue increasing its diversion rate, Austin Resource Recovery teamed up with four researchers from the city's Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows program to conduct a study among residents about their recycling habits, as reported by the Austin Monitor.
- The team conducted interviews in a diverse sample of 52 households over the course of three months to get to the root of people's recycling behavior and confusion. In addition to the standard questions, residents were also asked what motivated them to recycle in order to express their feelings about the process through creative outlets.
- Confusion was identified as a key factor, particularly because single-stream has created “a false sense of simplicity." Residents who talked about feeling pressured by time or money said that recycling was not a priority and residents in multi-unit buildings mentioned a feeling of anonymity that made it hard to care.
Austin has set a goal of reaching "zero waste" or 90% diversion by 2040, without utilizing waste-to-energy facilities, but the city missed its 50% diversion rate benchmark in 2015. While a 42% diversion rate is still much higher than many other cities with similar goals, it may not be enough to keep the momentum going. The city has also looked to consultants, with funding from the Austin City Council, for ideas to renew its efforts moving forward.
Compared to other municipalities in Texas, Austin is still far ahead of the curve, yet moving into higher diversion rate territory is where efforts get complicated. New programs such as a commercial organics diversion mandate for large businesses and curbside textile recycling have just begun to take effect. Their success, and potential challenges, will likely be watched by other cities that are in the earlier stages of their own "zero waste" processes.
As multiple studies have shown, single-stream recycling is now the dominant system throughout the country. Though in a number of cases contamination and lack of access or education in multi-unit buildings can affect even the most active programs. The solutions created by this team of research fellows, and the results of future larger studies they plan to conduct, could be helpful for many other cities that would be happy to reach Austin's current levels let alone "zero waste."
- Austin Monitor Study reveals why some Austinites don’t recycle
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