Zero Food Waste is Becoming a Reality for One Texas City

A new law in Austin requires restaurants to donate or compost unused food.


(Roschetzky Photography /

Texas's Capital is committed to being completely Zero Waste by 2040 and the city is diving right in by eliminating food waste. New regulations require commercial food businesses to become more environmentally sustainable and not throw unused food into landfills.

Food waste that is not combusted and goes into landfills produces a large amount of methane gas; in fact, “14 percent of greenhouse gases in the US are associated with growing, packaging, transporting, and disposing of food,” according to the UN.

While there is food loss all along the food chain, beginning with farms all the way to the consumers, there is one place where the issue of food waste is very acute; restaurants. About four to ten percent of the food purchased by a restaurant goes to waste, which translates to about 100,000 lbs (ca. 45,000 kg) a year for a single restaurant. This is why the new ordinance is so important.

Austin's new law is part of its Universal Recycling Ordinance and it went into effect on October 1. The law requires all businesses that serve food, including restaurants, farmer's markets, stores and any business involved in food prep and processing, to divert all organic matter (now 37 percent of Austin's waste) from landfills. How to do that is easier than it sounds.

The first option is to donate unused food to charities that provide food for the poor like Keep Austin Fed, Caritas of Austin, and various church soup kitchens; some will even pick up the food. Many restaurants have been hesitant to do this because they believe that they are liable for any illnesses that may result from the food. But, that is not the case, The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation law protects restaurants from civil and criminal liability from donated food.

Other options include: sending food scraps to local animal farms or ranches and composting either on-site or through a private organic waste collector. This law also applies to non-food organic waste like paper napkins and packaging and plant-based items.

The new law also demands that food industries educate their employees, put signage up about the regulations, and submit an annual Organic Diversion plan. Austin's Resource Recovery's Business Outreach service is helping businesses comply with the new regulation by offering site-specific information, guidance, and training online and at free training sessions.

Austin is very serious about its commitment to Zero Waste the new regulation is a fantastic start to getting the city on the path to a greener and fairer future.

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