What’s in a Bin?

Remember that time you felt so proud of yourself for putting your empty pizza box in the recycling bin, only to have some know-it-all lecture you about how greasy pizza boxes don’t belong there? Don’t let that moment of soul-crushing humiliation scare you away from the curbside composting collection program brought to us by Austin Resource Recovery  (ARR).

A crucial part of Austin’s Zero Waste initiative to keep 90 percent of the city’s trash out of landfills by 2040, the composting program has already rolled out to 52,000 homes since the pilot launched in 2013, and the City plans to raise that total to 90,000 by this summer. That would add up to almost half of the city’s residential garbage becoming nutrient-rich fertilizer instead of methane in a toxic junk heap. Since the City estimates that nearly half of a household’s waste can be composted, the program has the potential to make a big impact. “Food trash is a resource we can get out of the landfills to help Austin get toward zero-waste goals,” says Amy Slagle, who heads up the program as an ARR assistant division manager.

The rules of city composting really aren’t that tricky: Once you get the 32-gallon green bin, you stuff it with any and all food scraps, yard trimmings and soiled paper and roll it to the curb every week with your garbage and recycling. Sounds simple enough, but as the program expands throughout the city, the new garbage routine has left some people befuddled and sometimes even angry. Program participants we spoke to questioned their commitment to yet another bin in their lives, griped about pests and odors, wondered why there’s no opt-out option available—and you don’t even want to hear what they said about the pet poop that has mysteriously appeared in their bins.

Slagle has heard these concerns and then some. Here are some tips she and ARR offer to customers confused about composting.


Don’t Sweat the Small Scraps

As long as it’s food, they’ll take it. Anyone who’s composted at home may be surprised to learn that the City will accept meat, bones, dairy products and other gunk usually discouraged in backyard piles. That’s because ARR has contracted with commercial composter Organics “By Gosh,” which has the space to make mountains of compost materials so big they heat up like chemical furnaces, breaking down most anything. However, they can’t handle cooking grease, so you’ll still have to dump that off at ARR’s Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center. 

Stash Your Grass

Unless you hold regular Henry VIII-style feasts, your bin will likely have plenty of room for leaves, grass and small branches. The City will still take your leaf bags, too (just try to fill the bin first).

Get Your Papers in Order

It may be traumatic to bring up pizza boxes again, but they represent a handy way to remember how to treat paper: Recycle the clean tops and compost the greasy bottoms. Recycling companies have no use for food-stained paper, but to composters, it’s gold.

Throw a Compost Party

The City has expanded the program by rolling out composting in neighborhoods adjacent to other neighborhoods that already have it. Make the most of your service by inviting a friend in a compost-free neighborhood to dump scraps in your bin. 

Quell the Smell

The biggest source of anxiety Slagle has encountered from customers new to composting is the stench. Here’s what she recommends:

• Line the bucket, or keep scraps in the house, using a BPI-certified compostable bag.

• Store the container in the freezer until it’s time to dump it in the bin.

• Layer leaves and/or cardboard over the scraps in your bin.

• Sprinkle the whole shebang with baking soda.

• Store your bin in the shade.

• Even if it’s not full, take your bin to the curb every week.

Downsize Your Garbage

Composting only costs you an extra buck a month. And though that charge goes up $4 more by 2020, that’s hardly anything to gripe about. If the cost or presence of another bin is really bothersome, consider switching to a smaller garbage bin. ARR offers four trash cart sizes, each costing less as they go down in size. Switching from the 64-gallon to the 24-gallon, for example, saves $76 a year. 

Composting’s Here to Stay

The pilot phase of ARR’s composting program saved more than 15,000 tons of compostable trash from landfills. The organization hopes to have composting bins in the driveways of all its 190,000 customers by 2020. If you’re still not sold on the idea, call 3-1-1 and the City will come retrieve your bin, but you’ll still be charged that extra buck a month, so…may as well join the composting party.

For more information, visit austinrecycles.com or call 3-1-1.

By Steve Wilson