Air Pollution in Austin

Global warming. Climate change. These terms make the problem of anthropogenic greenhouse gases seem kind of abstract: impossibly huge and far away in time and space.

moody sky

I live a pretty simple life. I don’t drive a car. I eat a vegetarian diet. My garden is organic and even includes native plants. I have a compost bin in the back. So, how much do I contribute to this problem? Can I feel even a little bit smug? No.

My impulse has been to blame other people for ‘peeing in the pool.’ They make an easy target those Heartland people like Marita Noon who feel good about standing in the warm glow of their own pee. Pee is what makes America great? Hope not.

As for fixing the problem I’ve often felt kind of hopeless. Because, what good can one person do? In those moments a terrible despair wells up in my heart: Why doesn’t someone do something about this?!?! But we aren’t princesses trapped in a tower. Waiting for rescue is the worst possible plan.

I have found it convenient to be oblivious — to not really know where I fit in this mess or what i can do to fix things. In that way I could shuffle the blame onto someone else and temporarily forget about it.

But pollution comes from somewhere; it doesn’t magically appear. And no community — no person — is innocent. So I looked around for more information. Specific information about where this pollution comes from. The answers were surprisingly easy to find.

Please click on this EPA link if you live in the United States and would like to know who is responsible for producing greenhouse gases in your community.

Here’s a map showing the locations of Austin’s bad guys. Actually, this is a map showing pollution sources for all of Travis County but as you can see they tend to cluster around the city.

austin polluters map
Austin Pollution Sources

First, Some Good News:

The third worst polluter (Decker Creek Power Plant) is supposed to be phased out by 2017. The City of Austin has a plan to convert this natural gas plant to 80% solar power.

And though Austin is booming our emissions have gone down in nearly every category since 2011. More people are creating less pollution. That’s something to celebrate. Yay, us.

Want to Do More?

This pie chart offers some clues. Follow the data as they used to say at school …

Sources Austin's AIr Pollution
Sources Austin’s Air Pollution

The two biggest sources of pollution in Austin come from generating electricity and rotting garbage.

We all know how to use less electricity. I can still hear my dad’s voice nagging across the decades, “Turn off the light if you aren’t in the room.” “Put on a sweater if you are cold.” Nagging has become a family tradition. I now say similar things to my son. “Close the fridge door.” And to my husband, “Let’s turn the AC off and go sit outside this evening.” Not wasting electricity is old news. Can I use even less? Probably.

The big surprise for me was how much our food system contributes to climate change. I understood the big picture. Depleting aquifers is bad. Trucking food across long distances is bad. Pesticides and herbicides are bad. Now I must add to the list: food waste is really bad.

Food mixed in with regular trash is estimated to make up about 40% of the trash in most landfills. And food waste releases one of the worst greenhouse gases of all: methane which is 72 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The Worst of the Worst

The purple slice representing Austin White Lime Company stands out. One company creates around 10% of all the pollution. Do they supply their own power? If not, then their footprint actually overlaps into the orange piece of pie. The “Other” category represents a handful of high tech manufacturers. Did you know they were so dirty? I didn’t. Can they do better? Let’s find out.

Zero Waste Heroes

There are many but for this post I think I will give a shout out to some of my neighbours: The Compost Pedallers. If you can’t or won’t make your own compost they will come to your house to take your kitchen scraps away. The scraps are given to local gardens and farms to be used to grow healthy local food. The ‘pedal’ in their name refers to the fact that they use bicycles instead of cars for pickup and delivery services. It would be great if they could expand their services across the entire city.

Why not just let the City’s solid waste services recycle your scraps? The problem is primarily one of size. Aerating huge quantities at the dump requires heavy duty machinery which burn fossil fuels. And as you can see from the light blue slice of the pie, that system simply isn’t working very well. Not only are they a significant point source for pollution but the trucks used to haul all that waste also contribute to the problem.


Whodunnit: Some Details of Austin’s Biggest Polluters

City of Austin Greenhouse Gas Emission Sources (in metric tons, 2013)

#1: Sand Hill Energy 601,180 (Power Plant) Burns natural gas to provide electricity

#2: Texas Disposal Systems Landfill 390,004 (Waste) Privately owned dump.

#3 Decker Creek Power Plant 360,049 (Power Plants) Burns natural gas to provide electricity.

#4: Austin White Lime Company McNeil Plant & Quarry 281,275 (Minerals) Lime products

#5: Samsung Austin Semiconductor 227,813 (Other) Tech manufacturing

#6: Hal C Weaver Power Plant 206,060 (Power Plants) Serves the University of Texas

#7 Freescale Semiconductor (2 sites) 176035 (Other) Tech manufacturing

#7: Sunset Farms Landfill 139,648 (Waste) Privately owned dump

#8: Texas Gas Service 92,682 (Petroleum and Natural Gas Systems) Supplies natural gas

#9: Spansion LLC 74,326 (Other) Tech manufacturing

#10: Waste Management Of Texas Austin Community Recycling & Disposal Facility 67,491 (Waste) Privately owned dump

#11: FM 812 Landfill 53,070 (Waste) Privately owned dump


33 thoughts on “Air Pollution in Austin

  1. We can only individually try to do as much as we can. turning off the standby on the tv is supposed to save a lot of eccentricity in a year, the same goes for anything that has a standby light. Unplug chargers when not in use, they use power even when not actually charging anything. But I suspect the greatest ting we can all do is vote and lobby for the changes we want to see. Vote against companies who pollute by NOT buying their products, vote by buying local, organic even if it costs a bit more – it is costing the earth less.


    1. I totally agree. People need to do their part and I think for the most part there is a great willingness to fix the problem. Unplugging stuff when not in use is a really great tip. And I agree that the problem isn’t about being more efficient or making things cost even less necessarily — that is thinking like a greedy CEO instead of speaking for the earth. The real problem is how do we get clean. That just might cost a little more until we set up the systems but it is what it is.


    1. That really surprised me, too. I don’t use meat or fish scraps in my bin but I am a vegetarian so that hasn’t been a problem for me but I’ve been trying to think about what meat eaters can do. I suppose they can make soups and stocks with the leftover bits. I wonder if there is way to safely cycle protein and fat. I bet there is.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting post. I had no idea that food waste plays such a big role in contributing to climate change. I wonder why this hasn’t been talked about more, because it seems like this ought to be one of the easier parts of the problem to tackle. But then here’s what may be a dumb question: if the issue is food rotting, what is the difference between rotting in a landfill and rotting in a compost pile in terms of environmental impact?


    1. Thank you! I am SO glad you asked that. This post was going to be much longer and then I realized it was turning into a book and so I just stopped. There are two differences — one is of scale and the other is about integrated use.

      In a really large landfill involving tons of material you can’t just go out there with a shovel and turn it over. You need to use earth movers — big ones. And that kind of equipment burns a lot of fuel. Some places simply bury the material which is a waste of a valuable resource at a time when our soils are rapidly depleting and even being eroded away. Landfills that purposefully turn scraps into compost that can be sent back to homes are slightly better but again you have to factor in transportation costs and a yuk factor. The rules governing what goes into that compost production and the allowable limits of heavy metals among other things doesn’t inspire me to want to use it in a food system.

      When a home owner composts they use things like hand shovels. They also tend to get the mix right to avoid the production of methane. When you live near a compost bin there is a strong incentive to keep it smelling good and to use safe materials. In the end, homes that compost use the end product on the site to improve soil and vegetation growth which happens to sequester a lot of carbon. So while greenhouse gases may be created during the composting itself (a certain amount is unavoidable), in the end the entire process of its use allows more carbon to stay in the earth instead of going into the air.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. So true! And there is no reason why apartment dwellers couldn’t have a communal compost bin right on their grounds to feed their landscaping or even in some cases their veggie gardens. We have a worm bin and I just LOVE the casings that we get out of it. I started some tomato seedlings earlier this year and foolishly used a sterile potting mix. Well those poor things sprouted but just stalled out and wouldn’t grow. A month passed. So, I tried using seaweed fertilizer. Another month passed. Nothing happened. I guess when they labeled that stuff a ‘sterile’ potting mix they weren’t kidding. So, I re-potted those seedlings into a mix that included worm casings and some compost and they exploded with growth. It was shocking.


  3. Debra, this is such a powerful example of grounded, thoughtful, and motivating consciousness-raising and advocacy on a personal, community, and global scale! Crucial information – thoughtfully analyzed and presented in a clear and easily accessible format!


  4. I followed the link to the EPA data. That was interesting. Our county has about 140,000 people. The two listed large polluters are the landfill and the U of IA power plant. Statewide, our power plant emissions are a high %-age. Our waste is low. The trend of the last 3 years is downward. That’s a good direction.


    1. I was surprised to see that our local university’s power plant was also one of the big polluters. Whatever happened to student activists? I hear there is a fossil fuel divestment thing happening but I have to wonder why they haven’t insisted on converting their own power plants to using clean energy. It isn’t a problem of funds for our university. They seem to have millions to spend on sports ….


        1. The university located here has done some work using computer technology to be more efficient, too. Those are ok efforts — better than nothing — but neither actually touch the issue of adding carbon into the atmosphere. In both cases they seem to have defined the problem as: How can we save money by being more efficient? That’s the wrong question. Universities have so many good cards going into this game: they have brain power, expertise, money, the idealism of youth and a desire to be innovative. They really could be doing so much more.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Really valuable post Debra, we have food waste collections once a week over here. We are issued with separate small bins and biodegradable bags – the bags go inside the bins. We put all scraps into the bin, including meat and fish. The food waste is then processed separately and its recycled into compost. We recycle all fruit and veg at home in our own compost bins. Food waste is shameful, not just the damage to the planet with greenhouse gases but the staggering amount of people without enough food to eat whilst we throw so much away.


    1. It is so important to make these systems easy to use. I love that idea of helping people sort using bags and bins. I think food waste is a shameful thing, too. Food is precious and ought to be treated with respect as the valuable resource it is. It is horrifying to think that some people enjoy so much privilege that they can just toss away the end product of so much labour, water and soil nutrients while other families can’t even feed their children.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What an excellent, innovative service those guys are running! Food waste is one of the worst contributors to landfill here in Australia too. Everyone should be composting


    1. I admire what they’ve done. It is an intelligent solution to a bunch of problems. And they’ve done it with some humour too. Everyone should compost but if they can’t or won’t let’s help them out. Or they can send those bits to me. I never have enough green stuff for my compost! haha

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Yes. And cutting back doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in the quality of life — in fact — it can mean the opposite.


  7. Excellent post, Debra. I often despair at how much “we” waste. I do my part, but I know, realistically, it doesn’t make all that much difference. You list of the biggest polluters was an eye opener. I guess If I’d really thought about it, the dumps make sense, but of course, I don’t think about that, except that I do recycle/compost more than I throw out. Good for me. I live in the Austin city limits, but for those who live in many (not all) of the burbs? All their yard waste goes to the dumps/landfills. Still, that happens. We have a long way to go.


    1. We also import San Antonio’s garbage. Exclamation point. The more I thought about this the more I realized one person’s effort can make a huge difference. Because it is never just one person. That one slice of the pie — garbage — is something we can totally control. We can get to zero waste and it can be done intelligently. The reason I feel good about all this today is seeing that overall trend of more people using less water, electricity and garbage. That means people do care a lot and that their efforts are showing measurable results. Plus, all of that has been done with only a minimal push and public information program from the City. Actions beginning at the grassroots level are super powerful.


  8. Yes, food waste is a huge problem. It doesn’t just occur at home. Institutional and producer food waste is the biggest part. However, we can all help by being more careful about what we eat, what we buy, what we order, where we buy… And if your local restaurants and stores are affiliated with food recovery organizations, that is a huge help, too. It reduces waste by making “leftovers” and day-olds available to food agencies like free lunch lines, meals on wheels, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. I think ordinary people really care about these issues and have a great willingness to do their part. So, even though a place like Austin has more people we are actually using less water and less electricity. Show people what they need to do and they will step up to do the work. The restaurants in my neighbourhood do participate in those kinds of programs. And thank you to all the people who worked hard to set those systems up! I remember once going around to see if any had any coffee grounds I could use for my garden but none did: other gardeners and the local urban farms had all beat me to it. Same story for egg shells. Bad news for me but good news in the bigger picture. Industries on the other hand won’t necessarily do good deeds without incentives or strict limits. That’s where our voices become important: to let them know what the true community standards are.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Everybody should compost, whether they garden actively or not. Past composting, there are ways to shop/store and prepare food that help keep waste down, and reduce what goes into our landfills. Those techniques should be part of every school child’s instruction.

    Even if you do not shop there regularly, it can be instructive to amble up and down the aisles of either Wheatsville food co-op location in Austin, as they often display, along with the cost, the number of miles something has to travel to get to the store (and by extension, you the consumer). Both stores aggressively compost and recycle and put some of every day’s profits towards local charitable organizations. I try to shop there every two weeks and though some of their products cost me more up front, the long term benefits to doing business they way they do helps out everybody in town whether they shop there or not.


    1. I don’t think they even offer Home Economic classes any more. Yet, what could be more basic than learning how to select and prepare food? Everyone -has- to eat. That loss has been a gain for the processed foods industry. If you don’t know how to cook and you are already tired after a long work day, stopping for fast food or buying a frozen pizza seems like a quick and easy solution to the real problem of feeding one’s family. I love the idea of posting food miles along with products. That’s really brilliant. That helps people understand at least one of the hidden costs of our relatively cheap food. That’s informed consent. One of the reasons California is running out of water is that they keep shipping it all across the continent.


    1. I agree. Food portions have swelled to ridiculous quantities. People eating at restaurants are routinely eating for three or more. I once attended a workshop where the speaker described the correct size of food portions and it was pretty surprising.

      Liked by 1 person

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