City Wants Businesses, Apartments to Stop Being So Trashy

Long ago, (o.k. March) in a galaxy far, far away (a.k.a. outside the Loop), this reporter worked in an office that dumped thousands and thousands of bright white sheets of paper into the garbage on a regular basis. The explanation her then business manager gave was that the City simply doesn't have a recycling program for commercial entities. He's right. But the Current does have recycling bins everywhere, and they do get emptied at least once a week. So where does it go? Well, the Current recycles its paper through AbitibiBowater, it's free and we even get a small monthly check for our sizable contribution of newsprint and office paper. As for our modest bins for aluminum and plastic, crusading environmentalist and staff writer Greg Harman set that up for volunteers to collect and take to their residential bins or local recycling center. Meanwhile, R.L. Worth, the property managers at the former office confirm they contract no recycling collection at the former office park, leaving workers to go Harman-style vigalante (easier said than done with pounds and pounds of wastepaper, trust me), or pretend that recycling doesn't really matter all that much anyway.

Oh, but it does. Setting aside for a moment the positive domino effect recycling has on the environment by decreasing the production of virgin materials, let's talk trash and money. A report recently released by COSA's Solid Waste Management Department pointed out that "currently, San Antonio benefits from having relatively inexpensive, long-term contracts with three area landfills; however, as available landfill space decreases, disposal costs will continue to rise." In a briefing delivered to City Council yesterday, Solid Waste Management director David McCary presented statistics showing that disposal fees per Ton have risen 2.5% annually since 2001, or 22.5% in the past ten years. That gets passed onto citizens via the City Services fees on the bottom of your CPS bill (mine's $18.74 a month, how about yours?). Meanwhile, recyclable materials can actually generate a profit for the City, which McCary says could lead to decreases in that fee. Here's another way to look at it: the Solid Waste report cites a study that estimated all that pesky paper may STILL comprise 34 percent of San Antonio's waste stream. The thousands of tons of combined newspaper and mixed paper San Antonians did manage to get to the blue bins between October 2009 and April 2010 accounted for $1,188,733 of the $1,800,155 net revenue realized from all recyclables. That doesn't count cardboard, which provided an additional $545,676.

Aside from the feel good factor, this might be the reason the City is so interested in pumping up our recycling program. The alliterative title of Solid Waste's report is "10 Year Recycling and Resource Recovery Plan For Residential and Commercial Services: Creating a Pathway to Zero Waste," compiled after three months of focus group meetings of 18 citizens and two reps appointed by the Mayor. In typical bureaucrat-speak "zero-waste" means recycling 90 percent of whatall we might otherwise chuck. And take some deep breaths because this plan is just "a pathway" to get us there. Right now, McCary says residents recycle about 18 percent of our total waste output. The plan he presented to City Council seeks to increase that to 40 percent by 2020. Bearing in mind that through single-stream automated residential recycling alone we've upped our recycling rate from 5 to 18 percent in four years, District 4 Council member Phil Cortez and District 7's Justin Rodriguez advocated for stepping up that goal to 60 percent by 2020. While we seem to finally have our single-family residence recycling ducks in a row (it only took us four years to roll out automated recycling across the City, McCary said we're one of the last major cities in the nation to do so), if SA really wants to cap Mission Verde with a recycled aluminum star, Solid Waste reckons they'll have to get multi-family residences and commercial sites on board as well, and re-evaluate how the City encourages recycling organics like yard trimmings and food scraps.

Number one on Solid Waste's strategic priorities is requiring multi-family dwellings to offer recycling services to residents. According to data from the U.S. Census and Texas A&M's real estate center, about 28 percent of San Antonians live in apartments or condos. Currently, these buildings contract with private haulers and can choose to provide recycling service or leave it up to residents to haul their own recycling to drop-off points. A revision in city ordinance could require private haulers to provide recycling, as many cities with recycling rates near 40 percent already do. The number two priority is to encourage commercial recycling by extending an ordinance similar to the one considered for multi-family dwellings to businesses and office owners, meaning that property managers like R.L. Worth would finally be compelled to help save the trees. While commercial recycling won't effect our residential recycling goal of 40 percent by 2020, it is a vital step toward reaching citywide zero waste. "Because we don't have a baseline `for corporations`" said McCary, "the key is to find out what they're doing now." Some businesses already recycle, some don't; some are small enough to recycle in residential bins, some have their own cardboard compactors on the premises; some are on a paperless system but could recycle plenty of construction material, others go through reams of paper a day but don't trash high volumes of anything else recyclable. Once McCary and co. see what local businesses already do, and what they might need to be mandated or assisted to do, his department can generate an ordinance. The Mayor in particular is a backer of commercial recycling initiatives, urging Solid Waste to "look very long and very hard" at encouraging such practices in business as well as all San Antonio's school districts.

To help determine a direction, Solid Waste identified some potential best practice cities to look at, like Austin (who have committed to zero waste by 2040). Keith Bible, head of Austin's multi-family and commercial recycling initiatives confirms San Antonio solid waste staff members visited him last year. "They grilled us pretty good," on multi-family initiatives said Bible. Currently, Austin requires multi-family residences and commercial entities with 100 or more residents or employees respectively to provide recycling of 2-4 minimum of the following materials: aluminum, tin/steel, glass, plastic containers, newspaper, corrugated cardboard and/or mixed paper. With their zero-waste commitment, they're looking to require even more out of such facilities. Bible says his department hopes to revise the City ordinance to require recycling from entities occupying 100,000 square feet next year, then halve that to 50,000 square feet the year after that and reduce that to 25,000 square feet after that. We expect San Antonio to be looking eagerly north to see how these proposed ordinances take.

Meanwhile, San Antonio may also want to examine another possible best practice city...Plano. Yes, Plano boasts a 39 percent recycling rate and a comprehensive web site to show off their efforts. One way Plano gets such a high recycling return rate is through their residential yard debris collection, which happens on a weekly basis and likely provides a healthy boost to their recycling rate. Currently, San Antonio collects only brush semi-annually, though McCary said the 10 year pathway could include enhanced collection. Plano transports grass trimmings, brush and tree clippings, as well as cardboard, to Texas Pure in nearby McKinney, which composts or mulches it and sells it back to interested residents. On the commercial side, Plano instituted an innovative plan to collect biodegradable food scraps and coffee grounds from local schools and restaurants and also transports it to Texas Pure. In 2008, the EPA stated that such organic material comprised 33% of the total U.S. municipal solid waste generation. If San Antonio could implement a compost plan like Plano's, that would be another way to significantly cut back on our contribution to local dumps and possibly offset recycling program costs through profits made selling mulch and compost. Currently, McCary says Solid Waste partners with Keep San Antonio Beautiful to provide free composting classes to encourage implementing the process at home.

McCary, mindful that our 18 percent residential recycling rate is an improvement but still lower than every other major Texas city beside Houston and El Paso, stressed toward the close of our post-presentation conversation "we're only scratching the surface, we want people to know how much farther we have to go." Solid Waste Services hopes to present ordinance revisions in August or September. Who knows, by next year maybe Harman-esque employees schlepping pounds of paper and Coke cans from office to home recycling bin will be an image we can discard, permanently.

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