Downtown Austin Recycling Frustrations

I’m the first to proudly hang my green living badge on my downtown Austin condo door.  But, something that has always nagged at me is that there is no comprehensive recycling plan in downtown Austin.

Compared to most Austin neighborhoods, where there is single stream recycling, downtown Austin has a long way to go.  Single stream recycling is a consumer’s preferred method of recycling.  One bin for everything. Single stream recycling requires little more effort than throwing stuff away.  The aggregated refuse is hauled to San Antonio for processing.  This might change.

These bins do not work as well in dense environments.  Many single family homes will keep the recycling bin in the garage.  This is what my parents do, and they easily leave the smelly bin at the sidewalk [outside] to be picked up.  This model doesn’t work well in dense buildings, especially in high rises.

Most downtown buildings have a trash chute (not a recycling chute) on each floor, or provide nightly door-side trash pick up.  THIS is the motivational inflection point – living in a high rise, it’s simply easier to throw everything down the chute.  The obvious solution is to enable recycling at the users most convenient point – the point where many users (specifically, this author’s) motivation breaks down – the chute.

At the Sabine we have a trash chute, and no clear recycling program.  There is a garbage bin in the Hilton Garden Inn’s loading dock that can be accessed by winding through the basement, or outside via a 500lb door.  There we can dispose of cardboard, only.  The next best alternative: Amber would make the weekly effort of gathering our recycle-ables, and driving them over to Ecology Action on 9th Street @ I-35 Frontage Road.

At the Shore we have dedicated bins for various materials.  It’s a cumbersome process, but an available option, which is nice.

What buildings do it right?  That is, who is using dedicated single stream recycling chutes on each floor?  Gables Pressler and the Austonian.  Kudos.

OK, what happens to the thousands of beer cans and bottles consumed at downtown bars?

Jennifer Herber with City of Austin Solid Waste Services (SWS) helped me by explaining the ordinances in existence that would affect downtown Austin.  SWS provides recycling pickup for anything up to four-plexes, anything more than four-plexes are serviced by private sector companies like EFI and Waste Management, for example.  Dumpster service is most popular type of service available downtown.

The Commercial and Multi-family Recycling Ordinance became effective in April 1999.  This law requires any business with 100 employees to have recycling for at least four materials, and multifamily complexes over 100 dwellings to provide recycling service for at least two materials.  For example this could be one bin for cardboard, one for plastic bottles, one for newspaper, and another for glass.  Problem is, SWS has only two people code enforcers they rely on to confirm compliance.

Lacy Laborde with the Downtown Austin Alliance informed us that last year, City Council directed the City’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission (SWAC) and Solid Waste Services Department to make recommendations to amend the Commercial and Multi-Family Recycling Ordinance.  SWAC continues to hold meetings with stakeholders, includes subcommittees for restaurants and retailers, to understand how to best amend the ordinance.

All buildings within the Downtown Refuse Contract District (6th Street, Warehouse District and Congress Ave) can currently recycle paper and cardboard products.  There is a voluntary program that bars can opt-in to for glass recycling.  This includes several dumpsters placed throughout the alleys of East Sixth Street.  Only 10 bars participate in this program.

I want to emphasize this point:  The vast majority of beer bottles and cans in downtown Austin bars are NOT recycled. They’re just thrown away.  Take a moment an envision how many beers are consumed during a given week.  Now, imagine those beer cans and bottles piling up at the dump.  Next, imagine that they’ve been doing this for decades.

Frustrating, isn’t it?

SWAC should receive all subcommittee recommendations by April.  Hopefully, council will review them soon after and push for improvements.


p.s. Thanks to Lacy Laborde with the DAA, and Jennifer Herber with SWS for helping me navigate the various recycling rules and programs available.

About Jude Galligan

Jude Galligan, REALTOR, Principal of TOWERS Realty and publisher of Downtown Austin Blog (aka. "DAB"), spends his time matching remarkable people with remarkable properties in Austin’s urban core. A resident owner in downtown Austin, Jude has served on the Board of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) and the City of Austin Downtown Commission. Contact Jude.


  1. This is complicated by the unfortunate fact that the city doesn’t pick up from multi-family buildings; it’s contract haulers doing the work; so our leverage is limited. (Recycling is usually a money-loser which we gladly pay for out of trash fees – but the city doesn’t get trash fees from you guys, so it’s difficult to support recycling your stuff).

    Minor steps towards fixing this came a few years ago – your building SHOULD be required to support 2 kinds of recycling pickup (the ‘cardboard’ bin might suffice if they stretch it to something like ‘cardboard and mixed paper’). Long ways to go, though.

    In a saner city, the public trash utility would have picked up from multi-family buildings first and single-family homes second, of course, thanks to economies of scale, but for so long multi-family buildings were regarded as creeping socialism at best, so it’s no surprise we ended up where we are now.

  2. avatar Conrad Hametner says:

    The Milago has glass recycling bins on each floor by the trash chute. Then there is a separate recycling room for everything else. There is also paper recycling located very close to the mail room, which is convenient since most of us get lots of junk mail that is immediately discarded.

    One problem I see with single stream recycling is glass. It is hazardous to handle mixed with everything else. We actually had a hard time locating a vendor who would collect the glass for us.

  3. Years ago, Orlando had “blue bag” recycling to keep it single stream. Anything that was put into a blue bag was recycling. Bags from dumpsters were sorted blue/not and then the blue-bagged items were processed for recycling. I don’t know how well it worked or if they still have it. But, it seems like it might work in high-rise buildings…and then everyone could still use the trash chute.

    I’m also aghast at the lack of recycling in bars. Their trashcans have practically nothing else in them. Would it really be too much work to recycle all that glass and aluminum?

  4. But aren’t many of these bottles and cans that are dumped into the regular garbage then gathered up and recycled by the homeless? Do they recycle only aluminum or do they pick up glass as well?

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