A Fresh Use for Road Kill
If you ever see a dead animal on the side of the road in Austin, you can call 311 and a city employee will be sent out to pick it up. But what should happen to the carcass after it’s loaded on a truck? The city is taking a second look at that.
As people are driving to work early on a morning in South Austin, Chris Farr has been working since sunrise. He works at Austin Resource Recovery, the city department that deals with trash, recycling — and picking up dead animals.
“We’re right here about the 1200 block of East Stassney Lane in the median,” Farr says. “Going to pick up this deer. I don’t know how he got here, this isn’t a normal area for me to pick up a deer, but we’re going to go and pick it up.”
Farr puts on some gloves and then wraps a metal cable around the deer and pulls it into the back of his truck using a winch. He’s been doing this job for almost a year.
“It took me two weeks to get over the smell, but once I got over that, it’s pretty easy,” he said. “Just part of your job.”
It’s a job that keeps him pretty busy. The city collected more than 7,500 dead animals last year and 10,000 the year before that. Mostly they’re dead cats and dogs on the side of the road and animals euthanized at the city’s shelter. But Resource Recovery also picks up more than 500 dead deer each year.
Every one of those animals is brought to the Texas Disposal Systems landfill in southeastern Travis County and dumped in with the rest of the trash. But that could soon change.
“It’s been talked about, possibly putting them in compost piles, because they can be composted, so we’re looking into doing that maybe,” said Vidal Maldanado with Austin Resource Recovery.
At first the idea of composting animals might sound kind of gross. But proponents say it’s a low-cost and environmentally friendly way of dealing with what industry people refer to as “flesh waste”.
It works like this: You cover the dead animal in something containing carbon, like wood chips. And then wait nine months. That’s pretty much it.
“It’s very simple,” said Jean Bonhotal at the Cornell Waste Management Institute in Ithaca, N.Y. “Because you have carbon around it, carbon enveloping the whole animal, there is just no odor coming out of those piles unless it was done improperly. If you didn’t have enough cover on, then there wouldn’t be enough biofilter over that.”
Bonhotal has helped county and state governments set up animal composting programs across the country, including in New Mexico, New Jersey, Virginia, Vermont and New York State. The Virginia Department of Transportation is about to implement a composting program of its own to deal with the large number of deer killed on its roads.
Austin Resource Recovery is still trying to solve some obstacles. One of them is the unrecyclable plastic bags it uses to collect animal carcasses.
“We really can’t collect them without some way of containing them because sometimes they’re decomposed quite a bit,” Maldanado said. “So we’re trying to figure out how to do that.”
The city looked at compostable plastic bags, but so far it’s had trouble finding any strong enough for dead animal collection. But if it can figure that out, the Texas Disposal Systems landfill where it puts the animals now also has the capacity to compost them.
Composting dead animals would also fit in with the city’s Zero Waste Plan, which aims to reduce the trash going to landfills by 90 percent within two decades. But city officials say they think an animal composting program is still at least a year or two away.