Reduce, Reuse . . . Compost

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.

compost-488988734The 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.

The UT Clock Tower

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, then armed himself with rifles and ammunition and climbed to the top of the clock tower on the University of Texas Austin campus.  From there he randomly shot passersby, ultimately killing 14 people and wounding more than 30 more.  The inexplicable rampage ended only when police shot and killed Whitman. The Whitman shootings are a reminder that mass killings aren’t only a recent development in American history.

The clock tower is still on the UT campus, at one end of a graceful quad framed by a fountain at the other end.  It’s a fine building, but I’m not sure I could work around it without constantly thinking about that fateful day 50 years ago.

Knocking Around Austin

Austin lives up to its rep.  So far today we’ve explored the River Walk area, where the joggers and dog walkers roam, and checked out the downtown area and Texas Statehouse grounds. The weather is cooperating, too — warm but not too warm, with a little cloud cover and a decent breeze.


The Austin River Walk, which runs along the Colorado River and Lady Bird Lake, isn’t quite as elaborate as the San Antonio RiverWalk, but it’s a pretty area that obviously is well used by every Austinite who wants to get a little exercise.  It’s part of an extensive park system that includes a cool map of Texas and lots of room for dogs, kite-flying, and general lounging.


The Texas Statehouse grounds, as the top of the hill on Congress Street, are also interesting and attractive.  In addition to the impressive dome and the expected memorial to the heroes of the Alamo, shown below, I also caught an impromptu performance of a big, and impeccably attired, mariachi band, shown above.  When I walk by the Ohio Statehouse on my way to and from work every day I don’t often hear traditional mariachi music.

Live On Sixth Street

Everybody knows Austin has a thriving bar and live music scene.  Last night we started our pub crawl in the very cool Rainey Street area, which I’d never visited before, stopped to have a beer at the Container Bar, which is largely constructed out of those enormous corrugated containers used by the shipping industry, then legged it up past Stubb’s to a bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s, where a kind of light show projected against a white bluff entertained us.  After noshing at Stubb’s we headed over to Sixth Street, the traditional strip of bars and live music venues that keeps getting bigger — and louder.  

Around Austin you see people with t-shirts that say “Keep Austin Weird,” or something like that.  After our foray through Sixth Street, I’d say that goal is being accomplished.  You see people wearing flags as capes, masks, wigs, glitter, and just about any combination of clothing, or lack of clothing, you can conceive.  On Sixth Street, you can still freely let your freak flag fly.

The Grub At Stubb’s

We’re down in Austin to visit with family and see a performance by the Austin Symphony.  And if I’m in Austin, for any reason at all, I’ve got to stop by Stubb’s to have a little world class barbecue, liberally doused with Stubb’s equally world class sauce, and listen to some live music.

Last night we stopped by Stubb’s in the midst of a rambling pub crawl — which is a pretty good time to visit the establishment, incidentally — and I got the small combo plate with sausage, brisket, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.    It was excellent, of course, with just the right amount of smoky bark on the brisket and the creamiest mac ‘n cheese you can get anywhere.  It all went perfectly with a local brew.  Then, it was on to Sixth Street.