In 2011, the City of Austin set a goal of a 75% diversion rate for solid waste by 2020 and a 90% diversion rate by 2040 as part of its larger zero waste ambitions. A few years later, the City amended its universal recycling law on June 12, 2014 to include organics as a means of meeting this zero waste goal. To allow time for easy adjustment, the mandatory recycling of organics came into effect over a period of staggered dates, from October 2014 to October 2018.
The City’s goals are based on a desire to mitigate methane emissions from landfills and promote economic development. In fact, a 2008 study prepared for the city government by consultants estimated that a diversion economy could generate 1,800 jobs for Austin. In pursing this, the City wrote its Resource Recovery Master Plan, in which the City envisions providing incentives to encourage an economy where the discards of one business can be the feedstocks of another business. For example, under the recycling law, a building’s organic wastes can be sent to rural or urban farms and ranches as well as community gardens for composting.
Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance
Because organics represent over half the materials sent to Austin area landfills and incinerators, the city expanded its Universal Recycling Ordinance in 2014 to include organics (i.e. food scraps, food-soiled paper, and untreated wood). The amendment of the ordinance also followed the success of a curbside organics collection pilot program that began in December 2012. The program has since expanded to serve all Austin Resource Recovery curbside customers which, as of 2021, includes over 207,000 households and small businesses.
Austin’s universal recycling law requires “responsible parties” for private and public buildings, as well as residential dwellings, to arrange for service to collect their recyclable materials. The law’s applicability to responsible parties is based on the square footage of the commercial or residential premises. The dates when parties were to come under the law’s influence were staggered over a period of several years so that an increasing number of premises were subject to mandatory recycling, but had adequate time to implement their plans.
Responsible parties for these premises must also ensure that employees and residents have on-site access to a means of recycling and organic material diversion, and are provided with educational materials and proper instructions for recycling. Additionally, the law requires that parties submit an annual diversion plan on February 1 of each year, beginning in the year the law became applicable to the premises. A diversion plan must also be submitted by a responsible party when opening a new building, business, or multi-family residential complex.
In addition to the above, large organic waste generators must arrange for the recycling of their organics materials. “Food enterprises” of 15,000 square feet or greater become subject to the ordinance beginning October 1, 2016. On that same date in 2017, food enterprises between 5,000 and 14,999 square feet will become subject to the ordinance. Exceptions are possible for those who are granted a waiver by the city for certain requirements, and for enterprises serving only pre-packaged foods who are approved for a deduction of square footage and thus delay the law’s applicability. On October 1, 2018, all food enterprises are subject to mandatory organics recycling.
|Oct. 1, 2016||Oct. 1, 2017||Oct. 1, 2018|
Area (in square feet)
|≥ 15,000 sq ft||≥ 5,000 sq ft||All|
Notable Policy Elements
One noteworthy aspect of Austin’s ordinance is that it gives flexibility for how a responsible party may recover organic materials. The party may, for example, transport the organic material to a composting facility, compost on-site, or contract with a licensed recycling service provider. The responsible party may also divert organic materials to food banks, farms, or other material processors in ways that prioritizes feeding people and animals or industrial uses over composting in the waste diversion hierarchy outlined in the ordinance.
The City also has both financial incentives and educational programs to increase participation in home composting. As of 2016, Austinites can earn a $75 rebate on home composting equipment by attending one of the City’s free composting classes at numerous locations, or watch an online class followed by a questionnaire, which is submitted with the rebate application.
Austin requires private haulers to obtain a license for operation if serving premises within the jurisdiction of Austin. A condition of this license is for the hauler to submit quarterly reports on the amount of tons of organic waste collected and its drop off destination (City of Austin Code 15-6, Article 3, § 15-6-44). This serves as a means of collecting sufficient data in order to assess the city’s true diversion rate.
The City of Austin’s organics recycling program takes cues from preceding programs around the country. For instance, taking a page out of San Francisco‘s book, the City of Austin will not issue fines to non-compliant properties within the first year of their being subject to the universal recycling law; instead, education and outreach will be emphasized.
- City of Austin – Organics Factsheet for Food-Permitted Businesses (2016)
- City of Austin – Resource Recovery Policies & Ordinances
- City of Austin – Universal Recycling Ordinance text (2021)
- PDF of Ordinance No. 20140612-010 (2014)
- City of Austin – Resource Recovery Master Plan (2011)
Austin City Code: Chapter 15-6, Article 5
§ 15-6-91 – AFFECTED PREMISES.
(A) The responsible party for a premises of which all or part is used for multi-family residential use shall ensure that tenants and employees have access to on-site recycling services described under this article, for that portion of the premises that is multi-family residential, effective:
immediately for premises with 75 or more dwelling units;(1) October 1, 2013 for premises with 50 or more but less than 75 dwelling units;(2) October 1, 2014 for premises with 25 or more but less than 50 dwelling units;(3) October 1, 2015 for premises with 10 or more but less than 25 dwelling units; and(4) October 1, 2016 for premises with 5 or more but less than 10 dwelling units.
(B) The responsible party for a premises of which all or part is used for office, medical office, medical facilities, religious assembly, or private educational facilities shall ensure that tenants and employees have access to on-site recycling services described under this article, for that portion of the premises that has one or more of the uses described in this Subsection (B), effective:(1) immediately for premises with more than 100,000 square feet of the non-residential uses described in this Subsection (B); and(2) October 1, 2013 for premises with more than 75,000 square feet and up to 100,000 square feet of the non-residential uses described in this Subsection (B).
(C) The requirements in Subsection (D) of this section are in addition to the requirements in Subsections (A) and (B) of this section.
(D) The responsible party for a premises of which all or part is used for non-residential use, including but not limited to those uses described in Subsection (B) of this section and also including hotels and lodging, grocery stores, and commercial businesses, shall ensure that tenants and employees have access to on-site recycling services described under this article effective:(1) October 1, 2014 for premises with more than 50,000 square feet of any type of non-residential use;(2) October 1, 2015 for premises with more than 25,000 square feet and up to 50,000 square feet of any type of non-residential use;(3) October 1, 2016 for premises with more than 5,000 square feet and up to 25,000 square feet of any type of non-residential use; and(4) October 1, 2017 for all non-residential premises that are not described in (D)(1)—(3) of this subsection.
(E) In addition to complying with the other requirements described in this section, the responsible party for a premises of which all or a portion has use attributable to a food enterprise that requires a food permit under Section 10-3-61 (Permit Required) of this Code to operate shall ensure that employees at the food enterprise have access to on-site diversion of organic materials effective:(1) October 1, 2016 where the square footage in a certificate of occupancy, food enterprise permit, or similar document issued by a government entity for the food enterprise is 15,000 square feet or more;(2) October 1, 2017 where the square footage in a certificate of occupancy, food enterprise permit, or similar document issued by a government entity for the food enterprise is between 5,000 square feet to 14,999 square feet; and(3) October 1, 2018 for all food enterprises that hold a food enterprise permit and that are not described in (E)(1), (2) of this subsection.
(F) For purposes of determining the effective date under this section the director may verify the square footage attributable to a specific use by consulting appraisal district or other public records or by requesting a valid certificate of occupancy or approved site plan documenting the types of uses.
(G) A responsible party for an affected premises to which an effective date in Subsections (A)—(E) of this section applies and who begins operations after an applicable effective date shall comply with this ordinance on the date the affected premises is issued a certificate of occupancy.
§ 15-6-92 – DIVERSION REQUIREMENTS FOR AFFECTED PREMISES.
(A) On-site recycling and organic material diversion services required under this article shall:(1) collect at least the following materials: paper (including mixed paper and office paper), plastics PETE (#1) and HDPE (#2) bottles and containers, aluminum cans, corrugated cardboard, and glass bottles and jars;(2) collect organic materials, if a premises with a food enterprise is subject to Subsection (E) of Section 15-6-91 (Affected Premises);(3) provide receptacles, collection, capacity, and storage areas that comply with applicable administrative rules;(4) remove the recyclable or organic materials by either:(a) transporting the recyclable and organic materials to a materials recovery or composting facility authorized by law;(b) contracting with a City-licensed recycling service provider to transport the recyclable and compostable materials to a materials recovery or composting facility authorized by law; or(c) transporting recyclable or organic material, as permitted and required by City Code, to a material recovery facility, food bank, processor, material broker, urban farm, urban ranch, rural farm, rural ranch, community garden, or a facility that prioritizes the hierarchy of beneficial use as set out in Subsection (D) of this section.
(B) The director may add to the list of recyclable materials required under Subsection (A)(1) of Section 15-6-92 (Recycling Requirements for Affected Premises) by providing notice on the City’s website at least 365 continuous days before adding the additional materials.
(C) The department shall adopt rules that establish a process in which the responsible party for an affected premises can request:(1) a waiver of certain requirements in this article;(2) approval to comply with this article by achieving the City’s Zero Waste Goal through alternative means;(3) approval to substitute another recyclable material in place of a required recyclable material listed in Subsection (A)(1) above;(4) approval to comply with this article by sharing solid waste, recycling, or organic materials diversion services;(5) approval of a deduction of square footage under Subsection (E) of Section 15-6-91 (Affected Premises) if the food enterprise serves only pre-packaged food; or(6) approval for performing recycling or organic materials diversion on-site.
(D) In accordance with the requirements of the Good Faith Donor Act set forth in Chapter 76 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, the department shall by rule encourage the responsible party for affected premises to follow the hierarchy of beneficial use of scrap food which, beginning with the most beneficial, is:(1) feeding hungry people;(2) feeding animals;(3) providing for industrial uses; and(4) composting.
§ 15-6-93 – EDUCATION.
(A) The responsible party for an affected premises shall provide recycling information and instructions in accordance with rules adopted by the director to:(1) all tenants and employees of the premises annually;(2) a new employee or tenant no later than the thirtieth day after the tenant occupies or the employee begins work at the premises; and(3) all employees or tenants not later than the 30th day after a substantive change in the recycling service offered at the premises.
(B) The responsible party shall provide recycling information and instructions in accordance with rules adopted by the director to:(1) each business, tenant, or organization located at the premises annually;(2) a business, tenant, or organization newly located to the premises not later than the 30th day after any change in occupancy; and(3) all occupancies at the premises not later than the 30th day after a change in the recycling service offered.
(C) All information and documentation, including signage, required to be provided to persons or posted as public information under this article shall be written in English and Spanish and include universal symbols as adopted by the director.
(D) Each container designated or used for collection and disposal of materials to a state-recognized landfill shall be prominently marked “Landfill Trash” in English and Spanish and in compliance with the rules adopted by the director.
(E) Each container designated or used for collection or transport of recyclable or organic materials shall be affixed with a sign that includes:(1) the universal chasing arrows recycling symbol;(2) the type of materials accepted written in English and Spanish; and(3) the term “Recycling” or “Compostables” or “Organics”, as appropriate.
§ 15-6-101 – ANNUAL DIVERSION PLAN.
(A) The responsible party for an affected premises shall submit a recycling plan to the department by February 1 of each year starting with the year in which requirements of this article apply to the premises.
(B) The responsible party for an affected premises shall submit a recycling plan for a new business, building, or multi-family residential complex not later than the 30th day after receiving a certificate of occupancy or beginning operations or following any change that reduces recycling service or the types of materials collected.
(C) A plan must:(1) be on a form prescribed by the director;(2) list the materials to be diverted;(3) state the service capacities for landfill trash, recyclables, and organic materials;(4) state the collection method and service providers for landfill trash, recyclables, and organic materials; and(5) include information or documentation as required by the director to verify compliance with this article.
(D) The director may exempt a property from submitting a Recycling Plan if the property contracts with the City for solid waste and recycling services or if exempting the property is consistent with the City’s Zero Waste Goal set out in Resolution No. 20090115-050 and the Department’s Master Plan adopted in Resolution No. 20111215-047, as those resolutions may be amended from time to time.
Original post from May 10, 2016
Updated July 14, 2021
 City of Austin. 2008. “Austin, TX Zero Waste Strategic Plan.” Prepared for the City of Austin by Gary Liss & Associates. [PDF]
 Ibid., p. 14.
 City of Austin. n.d. “Resource Recovery FAQ – Universal Recycling Ordinance.” Accessed May 2016. [link]