City of Austin Promotes Chickens as the Conduit to Sustainability

City of Austin Promotes Chickens as the Conduit to Sustainability

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In addition to citizens — towns, cities, and governments need to act locally and think globally. The way in which people buy goods and farm their backyards have global implications. The city of Austin, Texas is doing great things toward sustainability. Back in 2011 the Austin City Council unanimously approved the adoption of the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan. The aim is to reach the City Council’s goal of “Zero Waste by 2040.” This means keeping at least 90% of discarded materials out of the landfill. And today chickens are a part of that equation.

As a full-time agriculture teacher, I remind my students often to think about the true environmental cost of “1-Click” shopping.

Before “1-Click” shopping goods were delivered in bulk to one location. Yes, there were emissions, but the delivery was centralized, and shoppers would buy multiple items in person to save on their own gas. Now, many of these items are being delivered individually. A few years ago, the EPA released data that showed the transportation sector was the largest source of carbon pollution. The transportation sector surpassed power plants for the top producer of carbon dioxide in 2016 — the first since 1979. In addition to the wasteful amount of shipments, the excessive packaging of boxes in boxes in boxes is enough to make me weep.

Of course, it is not only surplus shopping that is hurting our planet, it is also food waste. Currently one-third of all food produced in the world is wasted. I ask my students: if they were walking out of the grocery store with three bags and dropped one, would they stop and pick it up? They all cry, “yes of course,” but that is exactly how much we are wasting, whether it is due to spoilage or aesthetic blemishes. So, who can help limit food waste, while promoting locally sourced produce, eggs, and meat? It’s chickens of course.

“Chickens can keep food waste out of the landfill and help the city reach its 2040 zero-waste goal,” Vincent Cordova, Planner for the City of Austin’s Resource Recovery program says. “The City of Austin has had an existing home composting rebate program since 2010.”

That program offers $75 for the purchase of a home composting system. In 2017, this rebate was expanded to include chicken coops. Taking a chicken-keeping class is a requirement to receive the rebate.

“Residents are provided the opportunity to learn about Austin’s zero waste goals, local chicken-keeping codes and how to be a responsible chicken owner,” Cordova explains. “Classes cover proper care of fowl, coop requirements, and how to keep handlers protected from germs. These classes offer an opportunity for new chicken-keepers to network with more experienced owners who can help them get started and troubleshoot problems they may encounter.”

Noelle Bugaj has worked as a contractor for the City of Austin since the spring of 2015. She says that chickens are not extremely difficult animals to care for, but it is important for those considering keeping chickens or those who are already keeping chickens to do so responsibly.

Noelle Bugaj with a chicken companion.

“Attending a chicken keeping class creates an awareness in the community around ordinances that may affect them in keeping livestock within the city, provides them with a base knowledge to make decisions about the breed, age, and type of chicken that works best for them, supports them in ensuring they provide their chickens with adequate shelter, food, safety, social companionship, and also sets them up to be prepared if something goes wrong.”

Bugaj teaches attendees about the whole gamut of chicken keeping from raising chicks to their first molt as well as egg troubleshooting to culling. Teaching these programs has allowed her to become more immersed in the community.

“Creating more of these spaces where people can come together to talk, share, and support one another in their journeys, no matter what the venture, only helps to build a safer, healthier, and more caring, connected world,” she remarks.  

She says, “It never hurts to have a community that is knowledgeable and confident in making decisions for themselves about their journey in keeping chickens. Chicken-keeping classes support a more informed community caring for their animals in a responsible way.”

She reminds me that chickens can contribute to our ecosystem and sustainability in many positive ways.

“What comes with keeping chickens is a fuller understanding of all that goes into what we eat and what we often take for granted. The eggs and meat that can come from keeping chickens in your backyard can help build deeper connections in the community through sharing with neighbors and friends. Chickens can be a gardener’s ‘best friend’ in providing a form of organic pest control and garden tilling as they scratch and search for bugs, limiting the use of harsh chemicals in the growing of plants and food.”

BYP readers know chicken manure is an excellent source of nitrogen. Mixing manure with grass clippings can create a nutrient-rich compost.

Chickens can help turn food waste into protein-rich eggs. Photo courtesy of Austin Resource Recovery.

Bugaj says, “The compost you can create from chicken outputs (manure) has many benefits — protecting the roots of plants, providing nutrients to create stronger and more pest-resistant plants, retaining moisture for longer periods of time reducing the need to water as often, and even binding heavy metals to the soil that help support cleaner water systems and less runoff.”

“The community in Austin, Texas is lucky to have a program that keeps them informed about responsible livestock ownership, engages them to be directly involved with the food system, and supports our ecosystem all at the same time,” Bugaj says excitedly. “When you have an opportunity to engage people in thinking about our food systems, our relationship to animals, our impact on the environment, build a stronger sense of community, and to do this all while minimizing waste as well as costs in hauling and landfill fees … it’s a no-brainer that more cities should adopt similar programs.”

When I first came across this story, I was delighted how aggressive the cities’ goals were regarding sustainability. I loved how they incorporated chickens into their model of resource recovery. And while I believe that there should be a chicken in every …. backyard, using chickens as a conduit between lifestyles and conservation is brilliant. After all, backyard chicken keeping is a microcosm of the world. If we can figure out how to balance economics, the environment and social equity in our own backyards, we can then work on saving the world.

If you know of a city that is advanced in their attitudes and actions regarding sustainability or chicken keeping, please send me a message.

Since the City of Austin’s expansion of the rebate program to include chicken coops in 2017, over 7,000 residents have attended. To learn more visit their website:

To reduce food waste, Austin Resource Recovery is taking several steps:
The Home Composting Rebate Program was expanded in 2017 to include chicken keeping. Chickens can help keep food scraps out of the landfill; one chicken eats an average of one-quarter pound of food daily.
Austin Resource Recovery promotes food recovery and offers technical support via individual consultations and trainings with businesses; provides rebates that can be used to implement food recovery programs; and develops resources for business, such as tip sheets, food donation signs, and industry best-practice guides.
In June 2018, curbside organics collection expanded again, resulting in over 90,000 households receiving the service, or almost half of Austin Resource Recovery’s customers. By 2020, the service will be offered to all customers, pending approval by City Council.
The Universal Recycling Ordinance requires that all commercial and multifamily properties provide employees and tenants with access to on-site recycling.

Originally published in the August/September 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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