Austin, Texas has come up with an interesting new approach to addressing its landfill and waste issues. Starting Monday, every restaurant and food business in Austin can no longer throw away any food.
The initiative stems from a 2015 study of the materials that ended up in Austin’s landfills. The study found that 37 percent of the landfill deposits from businesses was organic material that could have been composted or put to some other use. Accordingly, when the city enacted its Universal Recycling Ordinance, which has the goal of reaching the point of zero waste by 2040, one of the first targets was to reduce, and ultimately stop, the flow of organic material into landfill space.
The ban on throwing away food by local businesses is a first step in the process. According to the article linked above, Austin city officials hope that the restaurants and food businesses either donate the food to the needy, or give it to local farmers, or compost it. The affected businesses have to submit an “Organic Diversion Plan” each year.
The Austin initiative raises a lot of questions. Aren’t there health risks in giving leftover food to shelters and food banks, and how will they be dealt with? What are local farms and food banks supposed to do with leftover organics they can’t use? How much composting is really feasible, and what kind of environmental and health and atmospheric (i.e., odor) impact will lots of new composting piles and devices have? How is the city going to police compliance with the ordinance, and how many additional city workers will need to be hired to accomplish that? How much will prices charged at Austin restaurants have to increase to pay for the new activities that restaurants and food businesses will have to undertake? And, ultimately, when will individual residents in Austin have to establish their own compost piles to meet the zero waste goal?
Cities and counties are often viewed as laboratories of our democracy because they are willing to experiment, on a small scale, with different and creative potential solutions to societal problems. Local governments have long understood that we can’t simply keep burying trash and other discarded materials in landfills and have been looking for workable alternatives — so far, without a lot of success. I expect that many local governments will be paying careful attention to how Austin’s experiment with its Universal Recycling Ordinance works. Depending on how some of the questions noted above ultimately are answered, we may all see more composting in our future.