Dallas could mandate recycling for businesses to cut down on waste

Dallas officials could require tens of thousands of businesses to start recycling in an effort to divert waste from the landfill.

Commercial waste is next up on the city's environmental to-do list as officials pursue a "zero-waste" goal, which would extend the life of the McCommas Bluff Landfill, and try to mitigate the effects of climate change.

City officials are discussing ways to enforce such an ordinance. They could present a plan to council members early next year. The council last year approved a recycling mandate for apartment complexes and recently passed limits on bulk and brush set-outs.

But the staff and a new council will have to figure out how to tackle the plethora of materials that businesses discard — and determine how heavily the city should regulate recycling.

Susan Alvarez, assistant director of the Office of Environmental Quality and Sustainability, estimated a recycling mandate would affect nearly 40,000 businesses, which produce an array of materials — some businesses produce mostly paper waste, others mostly food. That makes a "one-size-fits-all" ordinance challenging, she said.

"It's one thing to say, 'Y'all have to do it.' But the second piece of it is enforcement," Alvarez said. "We want to make sure that the stakeholders in that ordinance have some say. And quite frankly, we have not done that much outreach."

Alvarez expects the office to send recommendations to the council by February. She hopes to have a proposed ordinance up for a vote in the following months, which would give officials time to talk to more business representatives.

Scott Goldstein, a spokesman for the Dallas Regional Chamber, said the business group hasn't taken a position on a commercial recycling mandate yet, but is "following this issue closely" and looks forward "to engaging with the new Dallas City Council."

Dallas is still well behind City Hall's "zero-waste" goals, which call for diverting 85% of Dallas' waste by 2040. The city's McCommas Bluff Landfill, home to about 1.8 million tons of waste every year, is on track to fill to capacity in 35 years.

But the city has made some incremental changes called for by the plan, which the council adopted in 2013.

Alvarez said the garbage landscape has changed since 2013. For example, now that China no longer takes U.S. recyclable materials, city officials struggle to find vendors that take its glass and recycling products, Alvarez said.

Alvarez also said many large businesses already have recycling programs to reduce costs. She said city officials have struggled with whether they should try a mandate or allow the free market to push businesses to divert waste.

"That's part of why there wasn't as much teeth in the zero-waste plan," Alvarez said. "They were anticipating that businesses would do it because it would benefit their bottom line."

Another challenge is that community priorities may have also changed in recent years. Of the 1,235 residents surveyed in a city study, 916 wanted composting available for organic materials.

The community interest in compost supported city staffers' plans to target areas with the best opportunities for waste reduction: Organic products make up 29% of the city's waste from residential and commercial collections.

But Corey Troiani, DFW program director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the city needs to take a more proactive approach toward climate change. He criticized the city's recently approved climate-action plan, for example, as an ineffective gesture.

"Plans, in the city of Dallas, oftentimes they get put on shelves and they collect dust," Troiani said.

Environmental advocates say they're catching up the new council members on the issues and waiting to see who could be the next champion for their cause. Former City Council member Sandy Greyson, who led the push for the ordinance that limits bulk and brush collections, was one of the council's biggest environmental champions, but she reached term limits in June.

Newly elected City Council member Chad West, who represents north Oak Cliff, said he supports the city's waste-reduction efforts. 

West, a lawyer, said he was personally "shocked" to find out the city didn't already mandate recycling.

"It felt all kinds of wrong," West said. 

But he is bullish on future environmental plans.

"The city, by adopting a climate action plan, has definitely shown that our priorities are in the right place," he said.