Report on "Getting To Zero Waste" May 2013 Symposium, Part II

This blog is the 2nd of 2, a quick review on things learned at the Interfaith Environmental Network symposium May 7, 2013, “Getting to Zero (Waste) – with Bob Gedert.” See part one of this blog here.

Mr. Bob Gedert is truly one of the world's leading authorities on municipal-scale solid waste management, recycling, and zero waste processing. Prior to becoming head of Austin's solid waste department, the utility that picks up everybody's "trash" and carts it off to be landfilled or recycled, Bob built an impressive career authoring and running recycling programs around the U.S.A.

Currently, Bob serves two roles: director of our city Resource Recovery Department (formerly known as Austin's "Solid Waste Department") and vice president of the National Recycling Coalition. A shortlist of previous experience includes: exec. dir. at, California's Resource Recovery Association, Chief of Recycling Operations for the City of Fresno (where he increased recycling rates from 29% to 75%), project manager for the California Product Stewardship Council, and Chief of Recycling for the State of Indiana. Mr. Gedert has been involved in large-scale waste reduction and reuse programs since 1975. 

Bob was hired as head of Austin's Resource Recovery Department in 2009 (total employees = about 370, annual budget = roughly $72M), specifically to oversee Austin's Zero Waste Plan. The department provides all manner of solid waste services, including not just trash can related stuff but things like street sweeping and dead animal collection. Austin's Zero Waste plans are impressive, putting our city at the forefront of an elite group of world class cities; world-class for the right reasons. In the U.S. today there are only a handful of other municipalities with similar objectives: Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., San Diego, and not too many more...

See a snippet of Austin's solid waste workers dancing in "The Trash Project," here

Image from 2009's "The Trash Project" by Forklift Danceworks. 

 Today, with new culture and leadership Austin's Resource Recovery Department is hard at work. Bob had numerous highlights to share during his presentation: 



Public Sanitation began in Austin in the 1930s, zero waste efforts began in 2012. Here's a synopsis of fhe City's journey to zero waste (so far): 

  • 2008: environmental community started the discussions
  • 2009: city council zero waste resolution 
  • 2010-2011: master plan development
  • Dec 2011: council adopts master plan
  • Jan 2012: zero waste implementation began


Overall, achieving Zero Waste is about improving materials management. Mr. Gedert, "We need to collect the materials for a 2nd life. We need to expand recycling opportunities, organics collection & composting (backyard and commercial trimmings, food waste, etc.), and economic development of zero waste related services: processing local plastics, local glass, etc." (The goal being to increase domestic jobs related to zero waste services.)

In a nutshell, Bob's goal is to minimize what goes to the landfill by increasing materials reuse. Austin is already a little better at total recycling than the national average, we'll achieve about 40% waste diversion in 2013 (the national average is around 32%). In the Zero Waste paradigm, ReUse has higher value than ReCycling. 

The City's goals for waste diversion rates: 

  • 35% recycling rate by 2010 (done)
  • 50% by 2015
  • 75% "" 2020
  • 85% ""  2025*
  • 90% "" 2030
  • 95+% "" 2040 

*Bob's goal is to reach 90% waste diversion and reuse by 2025. 


"90% of today's household waste is recyclable," says Bob. "We are undercollecting. There is about 16 to 17 lbs of solid waste generated per week, per average household." And of course there's the waste generated by Austin's economy. Future collection strategies will include making collection of food waste, styrofoam, hazardous waste, and more plastic and metal materials easier. 


2012 Implementation Highlights

  1. City will add a new HHW (Household Hazardous Waste) facility to North Austin (current facility is in South Austin). 
> tangent: "40% of prescribed medicines are thrown away in the US, most people have learned to flush their medicines down the drain. Our water filtration systems can filter out some, but not all of it. We have a serious issue with pharmaceutical pollution in our drinking water" -- Bob Gedert.
  2. Initiated more public recycling: airport, city facilities, etc. 
  3. Food scrap pilot with local restaurants
  4. Hauler Registration Ordinance, which tracks the annual recycling by haulers
  5. Universal Recycling Ordinance (phase 1)
  6. Single Use Retail Checkout Bag Ordinance (Austin's economy was distributing +250 million plastic bags via local retail. Reusing plastic grocery and retail bags for kitty litter & trash can liners only accounted for about 10% of total bags reuse of the +250 million we were putting into our own materials stream, annually.)

2013 Implementation Highlights

  1. Add household metals and foil to blue cart (every year we're adding a new material to our recycling stream
  2. Pilot curbside organics collection pilot (8,000 homes) (service goes citywide in 2017)
  3. Mattress collection program begins (about 85% of a clean mattress can be recycled)Web-based materials exchange program begins
  4. Reuse centers contracted - City hopes to site 3 to 5 reuse centers around the city this year

2014 Implementation Highlights

  1. Add hard, rigid plastics to blue cart
  2. Expand curbside organics collection (+8,000 additional homes)
  3. Start up 3 additional ReUse centers
  4. Start up Teacher's Creative ReUse center
  5. Explore textile collection
  6. Present to Council: C&D Ordinance (Construction & Demolition Ordinance) - 

2015 Implementation Highlights

  1. Add food cartons & containers to Blue Carts
  2. Expand Organics collection to 50% of Austin metro area homes
  3. Present to Council: Retail take-back Ordinance
  4. Present to Council: Styrofoam ordinance

Two Factoids You Can Use: allows people to choose what junk mail to rec'v. Check it out. And, did you know? Canvas bags are designed for about 200 uses and are a more responsible material than single-use plastic bags. Research shows, of the plastic bags sent to plastic lumber companies for recycling and reuse 60% of the bags still end up in landfills and just 40% end up in the recycling loop. Canvas wins. 

In Conclusion

Be proud of Austin's solid waste department!! -- now renamed "Resource Recovery" Department -- world-class Zero Waste leaders. 


Image from The Trash Project 

 About Us

Interfaith Environmental Network strives to bring Central Texans of different faiths together to claim the common call of environmental stewardship. Learn more about us via our website:, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIN accounts! Our next public symposium is Tuesday, June 4 at 7pm (more info here).

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