Restaurants in Austin can’t just throw away food anymore.

Starting October 1, no “food enterprises” can send all-organic materials to landfills. This includes restaurants, markets and businesses that prepare and process food. They must compost, donate, sell food scraps or other alternatives to sending these materials to landfills. And these materials don’t just include food – paper towels, cardboard and even flowers are covered by the new ordinance.

Failure to follow these rules can result in fines ranging from $100 to $2,000.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that while 40 percent of food in America isn’t ever eaten, one in eight Americans struggle to put food on the table. One in five central Texas kids is at risk of hunger, according to the Central Texas Food Bank. Food insecurity in the region is higher than national averages.

While a lot of food enterprises believe that they have liability if donated food adversely affects the needy and prefer landfills to charity for legal reasons, this isn’t true.

“As long as no one has acted in a totally reckless or deliberately destructive manner, lawyers are not interested in sticking it to people who make sure the needy do not starve,” wrote Nicole Civita, director of the Food Recovery Project at the University of Arkansas School of Law. “What is more, the very people who depend on donated food – the potential plaintiffs  – hesitate to bite the hands that feed them.”

This is partly due to a 1996 law called the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This protects food donors from liability for food items donated in good faith. But twenty years later, still more than half of restaurants not donating food waste used liability as an excuse.

Even if restaurants compost instead of donating, that has major environmental benefits. This policy is part of Austin’s bold plan to become a zero-waste city by 2040. A 2015 study found 37 percent of landfill waste is organic and could have been composted. Instead, in landfills, it releases methane, which contributes to climate change.

“When we waste food, we not only add organic materials to landfills, but we also waste all the water, land, energy, money, labor, and other resources that go into growing, processing, distributing and storing that food,” said NRDC’s Darby Hoover.

Austin joins San Francisco, Seattle and New York City in having “food waste diversion programs.” which the EPA called essential for sustainable communities.


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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