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City of Dallas Shoots for Zero Waste by 2040

The Big D has a big plan to go green. Dallas environmental advocates are confident the city can accomplish its ambitious plan to have the city recycling nearly all of its garbage by 2040.

A Greenstar Recycling Center  employee removes plastic bags from a sort line in Garland, Texas, September 13, 2012.

If J.R. Ewing can quit smoking and go green, anything is possible in Dallas, environmental advocates say, even an ambitious plan to have the city recycling nearly all of its garbage by 2040.

“If Dallas can have a zero-waste plan, any city can,” said Zac Trahan, the Dallas program manager at Texas Campaign for the Environment, a group challenging the city’s reputation for big oil, big cars and big sprawl. “It can really be a huge opportunity to move toward a more sustainable Texas.”

Before the last of the plastic bags, crumpled papers and other urban tumbleweeds head to the recycling plant, the city will have to determine when to implement the various steps of its plan, which the Dallas City Council formally adopted on Aug. 22. It will also have to navigate the lingering concerns of advocacy groups and the business community, from unintended environmental consequences to unfunded mandates.

Dallas is only the second Texas city to pass such a plan; the goal of Austin’s plan, approved in 2008, is to have the city recycling 90 percent of its solid waste by 2040. Dallas plans to redirect 84 percent of the trash that currently heads to landfills.

Houston has not passed a zero-waste plan, but city officials are also re-evaluating how to deal with its trash. Laura Spanjian, the director of Houston’s Office of Sustainability, said the city has already taken steps similar to those in the Dallas plan, including expanding recycling services and implementing mandatory yard waste composting and pilot programs for business and multi-family unit recycling. It is also exploring other green initiatives.

Dallas produces 2.2 million tons of solid waste a year, including 1.7 million tons from places that often do not recycle, like apartment buildings and businesses, according to a memo from Forest Turner, the assistant city manager. With Dallas’ population expected to grow by 40 percent in the next decade, the city’s landfill options are narrowing.

The zero-waste plan originally included specific timelines for implementation of the various steps, which include mandatory recycling service at apartments and businesses, composting programs and possible plastic bag and polystyrene bans.

Councilwoman Linda Koop made a successful motion to remove timelines from the plan after controversy arose over some of its initiatives and the amount of public input that went into drafting them. Now that the timelines have been excluded, the next steps involve redrafting specific initiatives with more public input.        

"We’re going to come back to the council with a two-year plan of action," Turner said. "We’re going to make a robust effort to get public input."

That includes feedback from the apartment industry, which Kathy Carlton, director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, said has “concerns with government mandates that would cost our industry money.”

Carlton said apartment complexes must contract out for garbage collection and that recycling sometimes costs more.

“Recycling in apartments is very difficult for us, because you have to educate residents or you end up paying for contaminated recycling containers,” she said.

Advocates like Trahan also have some concerns, including how long it might take to implement the plan and whether its language allows for the possible incineration of trash, something not usually considered part of a zero-waste initiative.

Trahan said his organization would push for shorter-term timelines, a plan that does not include incineration and more public input.

“It all depends on what happens next,” he said. “This could be really huge for Dallas and Texas.”

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