Austin’s ordinance will eventually hit Houston

Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, prohibiting restaurants from throwing out food, aims to help the city reach its Zero Waste by 2040 goal, but will most likely happen in other cities eventually.

County Line BBQ owner Skeeter Miller, a former Texas Restaurant Association president, said the ordinance has been in the works for nearly four years.

A pilot program at 14 restaurants, ranging from fast food to full service with different capabilities (in shopping centers and stand-alones), will help work out the kind of kinks that chip away at a restaurant's bottom line, which Miller said is only about five percent profit.

The ordinance started the recycling and composting program with large businesses and will move on to those with smaller square footage, requiring restaurants provide the city with their diversion plan detailing how they’ll divert 50 percent of recycling away from landfill, organics not included. Area businesses will look to institute changes in the following ways:

  • education
  • donating to the needy
  • rethink how products are brought into the restaurant, i.e. instead of cutting cabbage, get it pre-chopped and bagged to prevent waste OR give to farmers to feed to their animals
  • offer an option for customers to get less food
  • composting.

Restaurants just need to do two out of the five.

Miller said the only problem he has is with the composting part.

Haulers have run out of space to collect and dispose of organics, so they're having to dump compostable at the landfill anyways.

He said to start composting would cost $10,000 more per year per restaurant because there are a limited amount of haulers who could actually pick up composting and organics. Then, Austin city officials wanted restaurants to use biodegradable garbage liners. Regular garbage liners cost .03 cents; the biodegradable ones cost .85 cents. Miller said one weekend cost $1,400 for biodegradable liners, or $53,000 a year.

Miller said it would also increase the amount of traffic in and out of his parking lot, which increases wear and tear. He’s had to replace 10,000 square feet of his parking lot.

Smaller restaurants don't have the space for dumpsters. Miller said his parking spaces are worth $25,000, so replacing one for a trash receptacle is a hidden cost that would add up over a period of time.

He said restaurants that throw away a bunch of food every day cannot stay in business, and that good owners are constantly looking at ways to create less waste.

“Sometimes they pass rules and laws, that I feel like are overreach--people that aren’t good stewards (of the environment) that’s why they get passed and the people that have really been doing the right thing get punished by it,” said Miller.

But, it's taken the whole city and its residents to get involved for customers to realize what can be recycled, composted or is truly trash.

Overall, Miller said patrons get it. It's like when wearing seatbelts first became law.

He said what happens in Austin city government tends to spread to other cities around the state.

“We’re the tip of the sword on everything that goes on. So, it will be every city eventually,” said Miller.

Houston officials said it's not on their radar, yet.

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