Will Dallas Begin Burning Its Waste?

Update (12:28): Whelp. The plan passed.

Update (10:44): Rudolph Bush has an important piece about committee members who say they never served on the committee that was supposed to review this solid-waste master plan.

Original post: At today’s Dallas City Council meeting, the city will seek approval (paywall) of a solid-waste master plan that not everyone is onboard with. The reason: the plan appears to call for burning trash. Is this the first time you’re hearing of this? That’s because there hasn’t been any public debate of the issue. That’s why Zac Trahan, regional program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, says we need to hold up a minute and make sure we get this thing right. Here’s a letter from Trahan to the City Council explaining his position:

Mayor Rawlings and City Council Members,

It is very encouraging to see so many terrific provisions in the Dallas Local Solid Waste Plan. The stated goal of becoming a Zero Waste city by 2040 is indeed admirable. However, we believe this plan needs important changes before being formally adopted. In its current form, the plan could make Dallas a recycling laggard–not a leader. Our suggestion is to delay adopting this plan as it is currently proposed, and instead support changes that will strengthen it and speed up recycling programs in Dallas. We also believe you should invite public input through town hall meetings and public hearings, because all residents should have an opportunity to participate in this important planning process.

One immediate concern is the very definition of “Zero Waste” as outlined in this plan. In multiple instances, the plan makes reference to reducing and eliminating waste sent to landfills. The plan calls for Dallas to stop burying its waste. However, burning our waste is no better–in fact, it can be even worse. The Local Solid Waste Management Plan, as currently written, explicitly calls for Dallas to use “advanced diversion methods” and possibly develop “waste-to-energy” facilities, which are trash incinerators. Under the official Zero Waste International Alliance definition, a true Zero Waste Plan would make it clear that both burying and burning waste is unacceptable. As it stands now we aren’t burning our waste, and we need to keep it that way. Any plan that paves the way for future waste incineration facilities should be rejected. And if the plan openly calls for incineration, it can’t be called Zero Waste.

Another concern is that nothing is planned as “mandatory” until at least 2021. Everything within the next decade is purely voluntary. (One exception is the construction and demolition waste ordinance envisioned for 2015, we aren’t sure why this is listed as voluntary.) Frankly, this is unacceptable. We cannot rely on voluntary measures for the next decade if we expect to truly reduce our waste and ramp up recycling in Dallas.

Let’s take the single-use bag ban as an example. Under this plan, Dallas may not consider or research the idea for ten years. Designing and adopting a city ordinance to phase out single-use bags cannot be accomplished overnight, but there is absolutely no reason to wait a decade to begin this process. In fact, it began 4 years ago, and there are Dallas OEQ staff members who are already researching this right now.

Other cities such as Brownsville, Ft. Stockton and Austin are also phasing out single-use bags right now. Austin used a voluntary program for two years and will have the mandatory ordinance in place in March of 2013. Again, there is no reason Dallas should need to wait until 2025 to phase out single-use bags and styrofoam.

The plan points out that 75% of our waste is coming from apartments, businesses and public entities, and envisions a city ordinance requiring these entities to provide recycling. This is yet another excellent idea. But then in the proposed timeline, Dallas would not begin research, stakeholder meetings or the development of this ordinance for another decade at least. Why would we wait so long? San Antonio, San Marcos, Crockett and Austin have already passed local ordinances requiring apartments to recycle. They certainly didn’t do it abruptly–they held stakeholder meetings, and solicited input from apartment and commercial building managers, recycling businesses and the public. They designed processes to phase in the requirements over time. But this takes 2-3 years, not 10-15. Crucial steps like recycling for apartments and businesses cannot be delayed for another decade.

Adopting a plan that envisions the passage of a city ordinance to require apartments to offer recycling by 2015, for instance, doesn’t come with an iron-clad commitment. But if the formal plan reflects decades-off timelines instead, this could become an obstacle in the way of making progress sooner. Future Council members will always have a reason to fall back on if they want to delay making critical waste reduction programs a reality. For example, if there is any effort to begin pushing for a single-use bag ordinance within the next ten years, opponents will point to this plan–if it is adopted in its current form–and note that it does not call for concrete action on bags until the ‘20s. Passing ordinances like this is hard enough without having to work against the City’s own solid waste plan!

Texas Campaign for the Environment has been organizing grassroots support on waste and recycling issues for 20 years. When our organization was founded in 1991, the first campaign we launched in Dallas was gathering over 70,000 signatures as a petition to help convince Mayor Bartlett and the City Council to start the first city-wide curbside recycling program in North Texas. Dallas has taken a leadership role on recycling several times since then, and we sincerely hope you will continue this legacy now. With several key improvements, this Local Solid Waste Management Plan could be among the best in the nation. But passing the plan without those improvements, as it is currently written, would make us a recycling laggard for the next decade. It would put us behind the times and behind other cities instead of leading the way. Clearly, Dallas deserves better.

Again, we urge you to delay the adoption of the proposed Dallas Local Solid Waste Plan. There was only one public meeting to gather citizen input during its creation–and it was held in the middle of the summer last year. Please schedule more public hearings now to give all residents a chance to offer their input. Dallas also should establish a Zero Waste Advisory Commission to review programs and make recommendations to the City Council. There is no pressing reason to rush this through now, so let’s take the time to get it right. After all, it will help guide us for another 30 years.

Thank you,

Zac Trahan

D/FW Program Director


  • Amy S

    10 cent bottle/can deposit. It’s a tax you don’t pay if you return your bottles. Surplus deposits from unreturned bottles/cans can be used to fund many programs (as well as offset the costs of facilitation for the retail sellers). Provides an income stream for those who don’t mind working to collect from the trash. http://plasticsnews.com/headlines2.html?id=25622

    Otherwise, everyone will keep messing with Texas. Great slogan, but polluters really don’t care.

  • Joe Smith

    It seems as if the city council is OK with department directors lying about public input and is willing to try to fix the problem with a meaningless amendment. By adopting the broad goals the city has set the course. The point of the Rudy Bush story is that the council was mislead by the city staff. It is not the first time the sanitation director has done that and it is not the first time the Morning News has reported on it, as has Channel 8.
    This is the same department head who led her staff take a vacation trip to Europe ($10,000 taxpayer money) to look into recycling technology only to learn it is too expensive for Dallas and involves burning trash. This is the same department director who send a misleading letter to dozens of business owners saying there was far more competition in waste hauling than actually existed. There was no hurry to pass this plan, no looming deadline and no reason that real public and industry input could not have been received before it was voted on.

  • Joe Smith

    I agree. Texas wants to be just like Michigan

  • amanda

    *Great* downwind from the TXI plants, allergies galore…and now burning trash.

  • Amy S

    @JoeSmith- Equals less trash to burn. And clean lakes and streams. But you keep the pollution, it goes well with the snarky attitude.