It's really easy to recycle in Dallas if you live in a house. Just dump that unsorted mass of old newspapers, empty soda cans and milk cartons into a cavernous blue bin, drag it to the curb and let one the city's lumbering dump trucks haul it away.
For those who live in apartments -- nearly half of the city's population -- recycling is much, much harder. There's no blue bin, no city dump truck. The average apartment complex doesn't even offer recycling.
Apartments, along with offices, hotels and other businesses, are part of an enormous blind spot in Dallas' recycling efforts. Together, they generate about 83 percent of the garbage that goes into area landfills. Houses account for a mere 17 percent.
That means, says Texas Campaign for the Environment's Zac Trahan, that "even if we had 100 percent recycling in single family homes in the city of Dallas, even if people were recycling every single piece of trash," the city would still be leaving behind a mountain of trash.
Trade groups -- the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, the Hotel Association of North Texas, and the Building Owners and Managers Association in particular -- fought hard against attempts to include mandatory commercial recycling as part of the long-term garbage plan the city adopted last February. They did, however, agree to survey members to see just how many offered recycling.
The results, which have been sitting on a shelf at City Hall for the past several months, are uninspiring.
Office buildings do OK, with 84 percent offering recycling for a 21 percent "waste diversion" rate, about two-thirds that of the average Dallas home dweller. Hotels and apartments do worse, with 37 percent of apartment complexes and 61 percent of hotels offering recycling. Their waste-diversion numbers are even more paltry, 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
And it's important to note that these figures very likely overstate the amount of recycling that's going on, perhaps by a large degree. Fewer than a quarter of the buildings surveyed bothered to respond. It seems safe to assume that the three-quarters who ignored the survey are less likely to be environmental stewards.
The trade groups all say they're working to improve recycling among members. Hotel Association executive director Cecile Newberry Fernandez says her organization is forming "hotel working group" to improve recycling efforts and will host regular sustainability programs. Teresa Foster, head of the Building Owners and Managers Association, suggested her industry's diversion rate would likely be higher if the reams of paper shredded by law firms, medical offices, and other businesses was counted in the survey and said her group would work with smaller and mid-sized properties, who often say they're prohibited from recycling by space constraints. Kathy Carlton, government affairs director for the Apartment Association, says educational efforts are underway, with a goal of getting 50 percent of properties to offer recycling by the end of 2015.
Carlton says her group has settled on a logo. "Do the logo, and everything else follows from there," she says.
All three groups remain skeptical of a mandate. Carlton says she's optimistic that Dallas' apartment complexes can voluntarily increase recycling to the point that a mandatory ordinance would be superfluous.
"That's the goal. That's always the goal. It is always better when people are doing it voluntarily."
Trahan, who's been meeting quarterly with the city and the trade groups to discuss recycling, thinks voluntary efforts are doomed to fall short. He nods to incremental progress (e.g. getting businesses to cough up recycling data, then taking steps to improve) but says recycling mandates like ones already passed in Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin are necessary for more significant improvement.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.
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