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Why Recycling Remains A Luxury Amenity In Texas

Granite countertops, infinity pools, recycling bins. One of these luxury apartment amenities is not like the others. Although renters are increasingly demanding recycling options, few multifamily owners are offering it. In Texas, one of the lowest-ranked states for waste diversion and reduction, recycling is largely viewed as a Class-A amenity, leaving many renters unable to put their waste anywhere but a landfill.

Recycling trash, landfill

“Higher levels of apartments usually come with higher-income residents who have higher education. Those residents are typically more interested in recycling than [residents] in Class-B, C and D properties,” Community Waste Disposal Director of Business Development Susan Holley said.

Though residents are driving change, municipalities hold the power in mandating waste ordinances. 

Some Texas cities, such as Fort Worth and San Antonio, require apartments to offer recycling services to residents. Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, which takes effect Oct. 1, requires all commercial properties, including apartments, to offer recycling. 

Austin and Dallas both have zero waste initiatives, plans to divert a given percentage of a city’s landfill waste by recycling. 

Plans to reach Dallas’ goal of becoming zero waste by 2040 have largely stagnated since its conception in 2013. At a current diversion rate of 20%, Dallas is lower than every other major metro in Texas. The national average is 35% and Austin’s is 42%.

Diverting waste from landfills is to the economic benefit of cities. The McCommas Bluff Landfill in Dallas earns $22M for the city annually. If the landfill reaches capacity (and it is on track to as early as 2062), the city would have to formulate a new way to handle trash — and make up for that $22M.

As people increasingly live in apartments instead of single-family homes, the multifamily space has a big impact on cities.

Though the multifamily recycling problem is not unique to Dallas, it is exacerbated there. Holley estimates about one-fifth of her clients offer recycling, and CWD has about 30% of the waste management market share in DFW. 

Recycling bins

Residents At The Root

“The bigger picture is that culturally in Texas, there’s less awareness or concern for recycling,” Recycle Now founder and CEO Steve Hill said. “Many Californians are moving to Texas [apartments] and saying, ‘What do you mean this place doesn’t recycle?’”

Since Hill founded his recycling valet and hauling service in North Texas in 2014, he has seen increased demand from residents. 

“Landlords think it’s not what residents want, but especially with Class-A [communities], that’s starting to change,” Hill said. “Residents are asking, and sometimes demanding, better recycling options.”

In the Class-A space, several owners, such as AMLI, Gables, Camden and Lincoln Property, have sustainability initiatives that encompass recycling. In Class-B, C and D apartments in cities that do not require recycling, smaller property management budgets and less resident interest result in more landfill waste. 

“In states like Texas where most communities are built horizontally and without trash chutes, folks have to walk a couple hundred yards to dispose of their trash,” Trash Butler CEO Omar Soliman said. “It becomes a challenge to deal with the stress and pain of transporting trash.”

If residents view recycling as a hassle and cities do not require apartments to comply, landlords must decide whether or not to offer the service. 

Recycling

Barriers To The Bin

The cost of recycling services makes them tough sells for multifamily properties outside of the luxury space. 

Dallas’ Recycle Now can cost about $5 per unit for weekly collection. 

“It helps in Class-A properties because budgets are bigger,” Hill said. “Budget can be a big factor when I get a call from a [Class]-C property who wants to recycle but doesn’t have the money to do it.” 

Having on-site bins where residents discard their own recyclables is cheaper than valet services. CWD can service a property for as low as $50 for a monthly pickup. 

But that is assuming a bin can fit on-site. Older properties were often built without the space to house double the waste bins.

When Hill moved from his native Boston to North Texas to an apartment that did not offer recycling, his property manager said the community did not have space on-site for another dumpster. Hill founded Recycle Now in response, starting by collecting and hauling recyclable materials away from apartment communities in North Texas, eliminating the need for on-site recycling storage. His company has since grown to include Houston, San Antonio and Austin. 

“Waste is really challenging to design for at apartments,” AMLI Vice President of Sustainability Erin Hatcher said. “There are only certain curb cuts and places to put out trash. When we acquire a property that wasn’t designed with recycling, there’s both a cultural and design hurdle there.” 

AMLI recycles in all of its communities, but the Class-A owner and developer also has a strong pillar of sustainability built into its business model. AMLI is also experimenting with composting and e-waste services in some of its properties. 

Landlords like AMLI create a culture of recycling with residents and with staff, which can be a selling point for residents.

Plastic bottles, recycling, landfill, waste

If residents do not demand recycling, management will not offer it, Soliman said. “In the South, it’s not something residents request. It’s just not a table stake yet,” he said.

Trash Butler services about 50,000 units in the U.S., predominantly in the South and Southwest. Of those units, one-quarter offer recycling, Soliman said.

Proper education is a deterrent. Property owners and managers can be resistant because they do not understand the process.

“There’s a big misconception about contamination. Owners think people just throw trash in the [recycling] can,” Holley said. “But once we get on to a property, they’re surprised at how easy it is.” 

CWD’s cans have a unique L-shaped slot that prevents typical trash bags from fitting into recycling bins. But contamination is a concern for most landlords who then have to pay the cost of hauling the trash-laden recycling to a landfill. 

Even property managers who buy into the process often do not want to teach people how to recycle properly. 

“You have a transient population of residents, and often staff, too. It takes time to train them to recycle correctly,” Holley said. 

Some landlords mitigate the education hurdle with programming and literature. They can put instructions in a move-in packet and tape fliers to doors. Recycle Now partners with owners to host pool parties or education classes that demonstrate what types of materials can be recycled.

But that education goes beyond which plastics can be recycled and how to break down boxes.

“That education piece is more than teaching how to recycle, Hill said. “People need to know that this stuff goes somewhere when we put it in a landfill — it goes on planet earth.”