Austin restaurants are teaching customers about new rules regarding how organic materials and other trash items are discarded. The change was made necessary by the City of Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, part of a multi-pronged plan to make the Capital City zero-waste by 2040. Among other environmental initiatives, the city seeks a 90 percent reduction in landfill trash. As it stands now, 40 percent of that waste is organic material. The city is addressing it with organics diversion requirements, which covers lawn clippings, discarded flowers, paper towels, paper napkins, and food-soiled paper. Although the city started phasing in the new rules in 2016, food businesses were granted a grace period until October 1 of this year.

Under the mandate, bars, grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants must find a way to “responsibly” get rid of food leftovers and scraps. This change has prompted many of these businesses to embrace composting and other green practices behind the scenes, but it can be a different story in the front of house. Joe Ritchie, director of hospitality at ELM Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Irene’s, and Cookbook Cafe), says that at Fareground, a food hall in downtown Austin, diners sometimes have trouble deciphering the waste-disposal “puzzle.” “There are times that glass or aluminum gets mixed in with our compost, and we need to get the gloves on and sort them because the public is still learning,” says Ritchie.

Susanne Harm, a spokeswoman for the Austin Resource Recovery Department, says Austin restaurant-goers are being educated about the recycling ordinance through local media coverage, public events, social media posts, inserts in utility bills, and 250 neighborhood recycling evangelists called “block leaders.” Given that a lot of restaurants and other eateries are handling organics diversion in the kitchen area, many customers won’t even know it’s happening, according to Harm.

That doesn’t mean that the eateries didn’t put in a lot of prep work to get ready for the ordinance deadline. Skeeter Miller, owner of the County Line and Flyrite Chicken restaurants, says his businesses have been collaborating with the City of Austin for about five years on its zero-waste push. Both currently divert about 80 percent of their trash — including organic waste — from landfills. To help accomplish that, they converted to reusable to-go containers, use real silverware instead of plastic utensils, and supply cloth napkins rather than paper napkins. “We did a pilot program for almost a year to help find better ways to divert trash from the landfill and create a zero-waste initiative that would be sustainable. I support what the city is doing,” Miller says.

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