Austin Leads Major Texas Cities in Recycling Rate, Statewide Rate Lags Behind National Average

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Bay Scoggin

TexPIRG Education Fund

AUSTIN – Texas’ recycling rate of 22% is well below the 34% national average, according to a Trash in America:  Moving from Destructive Consumption to a Zero-Waste System, a new TexPIRG report detailing the effects of overconsumption in America, including water contamination, air pollution, habitat destruction, and global warming. The report also examines how good policies can minimize the proliferation of waste and incentivize reduction, repairs, reuse, recycling, and composting.

“The consequences of our disposable, single-use society are frightening, when you step back and consider the massive public health and environmental effects,” said Bay Scoggin, Director of TexPIRG. “There’s really no reason to handle waste the way we do. The vast majority is recyclable or compostable, and the remainder is repairable or reusable. We have the technology we need to create a zero-waste society, we just need the willpower.”

Americans — who make up just 4 percent of the world’s population — produce more than 30 percent of the planet’s waste, and the results are disastrous for our public health and the environment. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texans disposed of about 6.83 pounds per person per day of waste in 2016, sending approximately 34.73 million tons of waste municipal solid waste landfills. At current rates, Texas landfill capacity will be reached in 56 years.

Landfills pose significant risks to public health and the environment. For example, in 2015, a Federal District court ruled that the Camelot Landfill posed “an imminent and substantial endangerment to the drinking water supplies” of nearby Lewisville, Texas. The contamination found in the town’s drinking water included chlorinated hydrocarbons, which can impact central nervous system function and cause liver and kidney damage, cancer and heart arrhythmia.

A January study by the TCEQ found that about 9.2 million tons of waste was recycled in Texas in 2015, about 22% of the total waste generated that year. TCEQ estimates that the recycling industry supported the equivalent of 17,000 jobs and contributed to $3.3 billion to the Texas economy.

Some cities are working to divert even more waste from landfills. Austin leads Texas with a 42% diversion rate, helped by its Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO), which ensures that property owners provide recycling access for tenants and employees. Houston recently adopted a new recycling contract that is expected to boost recycling rates there.

“As a country, the United States currently only recycles and composts 35 percent of disposed materials. But proactive cities, states and even other countries are diverting 80 to 90 percent of materials from landfills and incinerators to recycling and composting — showing that the U.S. can move toward zero waste too,” said Abi Bradford, Policy Analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report.

America has the tools to shift away from this harmful system to a “closed-loop” economy that produces zero waste. The report explores these solutions, including mandatory accessible recycling and composting, extended producer responsibility, bans on non-recyclable disposable items, right to repair laws, incentives for material innovation, and opposing the proliferation of landfills and incinerators.

Scoggin pointed to steps Texas cities can do to improve recycling rates and reduce waste:

·         Track recycling, composting, and trash rates consistently. Unfortunately, most cities and municipalities in Texas do not track on an annual basis, making it harder to set goals and make improvements.

·         Expand curbside programs for recycling and include separate bins for compost, which makes up roughly 50% of an average city’s waste stream.

·         Provide services to larger apartment buildings and businesses, not just single-family residences. Austin Resource Recovery estimates that 85% of waste comes from apartment buildings and businesses.

·         Ban use of single-use items like plastic straws and bags


Scoggin noted that a pending Texas Supreme Court case on Laredo’s plastic bag ordinance could limit the authority of local governments to address waste issues. He called on the Legislature to change state law to clearly allow cities to reduce waste through bans on items such as plastic bags and polystyrene containers.