The Mobro 4000, J. Conover for Vice Magazine (source)

Understanding Recycling in Austin, Texas

I’m Céline. I’m a Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellow for the City of Austin, using human-centered research and design, rapid prototyping and testing to positively impact city services. I’m on my second project with the City of Austin. In this post, I‘ll introduce our project and methods. Want to learn more about the fellowship? You can find information here. For more on this project, follow along by clicking the Follow button.


On March 22, 1987, a barge called the Mobro set out from NYC carrying 3,000 tons of garbage that couldn’t fit in their nearly-full landfills. The “gar-barge” grabbed the attention of press, and people marveled at a barge full of trash floating down the Hudson (1). Rumors spread about the quality of the barge’s cargo causing its intended destination to reject it. Instead the barge went on a 6,000 mile journey along the eastern seaboard before returning to its origin point and the incinerator. In the ten years following the Mobro incident, American recycling increased by 15%, the biggest recycling climb in our history (2). Americans saw what was happening to their trash and were inspired to take a more active role in recycling.

Municipal Solid Waste Rates, EPA Nov. 2016

Today, people still understand the need for recycling, but as product packaging, materials science, and recycling economies became more sophisticated, so has household recycling. Methods and rules for collecting and processing recyclables vary city by city and, instead of reusing like we used to, we’re sending recyclables out. Most people don’t know what happens to their trash.

Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) is a City of Austin department that manages Austin’s waste and recycling services. Here, recycling started as a grassroots campaign in the 1970s. A group of University of Texas students formed Ecology Action to help organize the first Earth Day. They set up Austin’s first recycling program to support global environmental efforts. Decades later, that program has morphed into the city of Austin’s curbside recycling services, and soon it will encompass citywide composting services.

The challenge is that the recycling rate in Austin, like other high-performing American recycling cities, is slowing. Although Austin’s recycling rate is currently at around 42%, the city has ambitious recycling goals of 75% by 2020 and 90% by 2040 (3). ARR’s aim is to preserve the environment and boost the Austin economy through recycling, but these efforts aren’t easy to distill down for residents. Between 2014–15, ARR employed two 3rd party agencies to,

  • “evaluate the recycling and reuse sectors’ economic impact” to improve Austin recycling and reuse infrastructure (4),
  • and “conduct a waste characterization study to determine the composition of ARR curbside trash and recyclables,” helping them to understand how close or far away they are to reaching recycling goals (5).

Some high level findings were,

  • Austin residents sent 44% or about $4.7 million in recyclable items to the landfill,
  • approximately 46% of what Austin residents throw away could be transformed into valuable compost,
  • Austin recycling creates more jobs with recycling than with trash services alone and has the potential to generate much more by strengthening infrastructure.

Equipped with this new knowledge and with clearly defined goals, ARR partnered with the Design, Technology, and Innovation fellows to gain insight into the perspectives, motivations, and barriers Austin residents face while managing household waste. What makes Austin residents tick is not the same for residents in San Francisco or Singapore, two other high performing American recycling cities. In order to create an approach to recycling that caters to Austinites, first we need to understand the specific needs of Austin residents and neighborhoods.

In September, we kicked off a collaborative human-centered research and design project, beginning with four weeks of in-home interviews. People invited us into their homes, where we became students and they taught us about waste and recycling, and shared their experiences. Here are a few stories that came from our in-home interviews.


Cesar, 31, Austin Preschool Teacher
One of our participants, Cesar, has been trying to coach his roommates on recycling for years. He told us, “I want them to recycle but they’re all adults in their thirties and I don’t want to ‘dad’ them.” If you notice in the picture, Cesar only has one small white bin in his home for recycling. It fills up quickly and most of the recycling gets tossed into the trash as a result.


Lina, 32, Stay-at-home Parent

Lina, her husband, and two kids live in a one bedroom apartment in North Austin. She’s pregnant with her third child and tries to stay indoors as much as possible to avoid getting Zika through mosquito bites. Lina and her husband chose the third floor of their building with safety as their primary concern so when she wants to take out the recycling, she has to descend three flights of concrete stairs, with a toddler in hand, on top of exposing herself to mosquitos. She usually waits until the carts are empty on her property because they often spill over and she’s unable to add her recycling to the cart. All combined, Lina keeps recycling going for her household despite obstacles.


Celia, 61, Small Business Owner and Consultant

In the photo Celia is drawing how she feels about recycling, with a quote that reads, “stop bugging me.” She refers to her adult kids who are always urging her to recycle at home. Celia moved to Texas from Vietnam thirty years ago and told us when she first arrived she was spellbound by the abundance of everything. In Vietnam people would hold onto a piece of used paper until it was completely used up. Here in Texas, she says, “they make you buy waste…It’s better to buy new.” Celia prides herself on her home, relationships, and business, but when asked what would make her recycle more, she replied, “you have to make my generation believe.”


Forty years ago, Austin residents took initiative to establish recycling services. How will Austin residents shape the next 40 years of household services in the city? By meeting and observing the households of our resident-neighbors, we can identify patterns and form insights into the challenges of recycling and uncover opportunities for designing messaging, services, or products that can help residents participate in and shape their city’s programs.

Our next step is to share research findings and opportunity areas with our advisory team, made up of city staff and experts in recycling or related fields. Gathering feedback from our share-out, we’ll move into illustrating potential solutions, evaluating them, and testing prototypes with Austin residents.


Want to check out some of the work that ARR has already done? ARR’s tested several programs over the past 5 years aimed at increasing city recycling participation. A few examples are,

  • Dare to Go Zero, a locally produced television show where families competed to become zero waste homes,
  • Reverse Pitch, a competition for entrepreneurs to develop a plan that turns waste into valuable business material,
  • and Austin Recycles Games, a competition between city districts for most recycling (by weight), and most improved.

Follow our work here on Medium and Github as we research, design, and test opportunities in Austin.


Sources

  1. Winerip, Michael. “The Big Stories Then in the Clear Light of Now.” The New York Times, 6 May 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/booming/new-video-series-re-examines-garbage-barge-fiasco.html
  2. “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet: Assessing Trends in Material Generation, Recycling, Composting, Combustion with Energy Recovery and Landfilling in the United States.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2016, p. 2, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-11/documents/2014_smmfactsheet_508.pdf
  3. Austin’s 2015 Community Diversion Study. Austin: CBI Environmental & Infrastructure, Inc., Apr. 2016, http://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Resource_Recovery/Austin_s_2015_Community_Diversion_Study-Final-04.29.16.pdf
  4. The Current and Potential Economic Impacts of Austin Recycling- and Reuse-Related Activity. Austin: TXP, Inc., 2015, https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/EGRSO/TXP_Austin_Recycling_Report_Final.pdf
  5. City-Serviced Residential Waste Characterization Study. Austin: CBI Environmental & Infrastructure, Inc., Apr. 2015, http://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Final_Report_-_Austin_City-Serviced_Waste_Characterization_Study_2015-04-14.pdf