Austin restaurants now required to keep food scraps out of trash

The City of Austin is now requiring restaurants and food businesses to find other ways to use leftover food so it doesn't end up in a landfill. 

The ordinance took effect this week, but there are several ways restaurant owners can comply.

Some solutions proposed by the city include donating extra food to feed the hungry, sending food scraps to animal farms or composting. 

For those struggling with the ordinance, the city and the restaurant association say they are there to help. “We have 6,000 restaurants in this city,” said Skeeter Miller, owner of County Line Restaurants.

Now all 6,000 will have to develop a plan to divert organic materials, like food or paper products, from landfills.  That can include composting, employee education, inventory control, posting signs, and providing access for employees to use food scraps. “If you can at least do two of the items out of the five then your cleared, let's say for instance, not to have to do the composting piece,” Miller said.   

The city said currently 37 percent of waste sent to landfills is organic. That's why Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance requires business owners to give employees a different option for food scraps. 

“Everybody needs to do this, it's just, can you afford it?” said Miller.   

Miller, who also sits on the board of the Texas Restaurant Association, said when the ordinance was discussed five years ago he wasn't able to afford it because of a lack of affordable haulers. “At that time, yes, it was going to cost my restaurant almost $10,000 more a year and that's real money in our business,” Miller said.  

That's why the city chose to phase in organic diversion requirements.

Because now, with more haulers in the city, the price of composting has dropped significantly. 

One cheap way miller's staff has been able to cut down on organic waste is to use leftovers in other ways. For example, turn leftover bread into bread pudding and leftover meat into soup. “You get your vegetables precut before they come to your restaurant so you don't have a lot of waste, you have smaller portions on your plates,” said Miller. 

The ordinance applies to all food-permitted businesses, including grocery stores, food trucks and catering companies. The city hopes it will help them get one step closer to their goal of reaching zero waste by 2040. “I think we're in a good place. I think we're doing the right thing and so I'm behind it 100 percent,” Miller said.  

Businesses that don't comply can be fined from $200-2,000 a day. 

Those that do can get some financial help in the form of tax incentives.

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