Countdown to Zero

Features - Municipal Recycling

San Antonio works to create a pathway to zero waste.

November 1, 2012
Tiffany Edmonds
Municipal / IC&I

It’s not just about trash anymore. Gone are the days when residents could just set out their trash and forget about it. And the solid waste industry can no longer simply collect it and dump it. With 80 percent of what we use every day being recyclable, it’s time to take notice and take action. That’s why the city of San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) has developed what it believes is an ambitious and innovative approach to making San Antonio a more sustainable society.

As the seventh largest city in the United States, San Antonio is home to 1.3 million residents and continues to be one of the fastest growing cities in America. It is home to thriving bioscience and health care sectors, and the aerospace industry remains a dominant economic strength in the city, with the presence of several aviation and aerospace corporations. San Antonio also is a cyber security hub and nationally recognized as a leader in the field of information security.

In 2012, the city was named an All-America City by the National Civic League and it maintains a strong financial position with a “AAA” general obligation bond rating from all three major rating agencies. The Milken Institute has ranked San Antonio No. 1 on its Best-Performing Cities list.

Additionally, San Antonio is positioning itself at the forefront of the new energy economy in the United States, committed to investing and creating employment opportunities in green industries.

San Antonio’s commitment to the environment goes beyond green industry, however. The SWMD knows that thinking about waste in the traditional manner is not going to cut it. That is why the department is on a mission to create a pathway to zero waste in San Antonio.

In a large city, many may assume that creating a pathway to zero waste is impossible, but SWMD believes that nothing is impossible. Sustainability is not about stifling the economic growth of a community but is instead about creating a system that the entire community can work within for the betterment of society.

The path to change

The pathway began in 2010 when the department created a 10-year Recycling and Resource Recovery Plan, which introduces programs and policies designed to establish a culture where discarded materials are viewed as resources instead of as waste.

As many in the waste management industry know, waste comes in many forms (solid, liquid, hazardous, medical, etc.), so developing a plan that not only dealt with its many forms but also helped the community to redefine how waste is viewed was essential.

One of the essential goals established in the plan is to increase the single-family recycling rate. In two years, San Antonio’s recycling rate has increased from 18 percent to its current rate of 27 percent. This commitment to increasing the recycling rate along with the increased participation of San Antonio residents in the recycling program has demonstrated that San Antonio is ready to take its green efforts to the next level.

To ensure that all single-family and multifamily residents have access to recycling programs, the city of San Antonio passed an ordinance that amended its Chapter 14 code in December 2010. The new amendment ensures that all families and individuals living in apartments, condominiums, townhomes, high-rise buildings and San Antonio Housing Authority properties have the opportunity to recycle and that it is convenient for the residents to do so. While SWMD does not provide commercial recycling services, the department did take a hands-on approach to ensure that this service was provided to the residents.

First, the department phased-in the implementation of recycling services at these complexes. The start dates were set by complex size, and all phases were completed in April 2012. In addition, SWMD created recycling educational materials that the multifamily complexes and the waste haulers could use and launched a citywide marketing campaign to inform San Antonio residents about the recycling program.

Inside out

In 2011, the department also implemented two new changes to its curbside brush and leaf collection programs.

To increase the amount of clean brush the department was able to recycle, the SWMD separated the brush and bulky collection program. By making this change, the department was able to increase the recycling rate for brush from 19 percent to 28 percent.

In addition to the changes in the brush program, SWMD implemented another change that assisted with the recycling of lawn trimmings. The department started requiring all residents to place their leaves in paper bags or cardboard boxes for collection. By requiring residents to do so, SWMD is able to compost the entire collection instead of having to rip open and throw away plastic bags.

Beyond the home
It’s not only about what we throw away at home but also about the waste we generate beyond the home. In the last two years, SWMD has teamed up with the city of San Antonio’s Parks and Recreation Department and Downtown Operations Department to establish a new initiative that provides recycling in one of San Antonio’s busiest destinations—the downtown area and famous River Walk as well as all city parks.

SWMD and the city of San Antonio’s Parks and Recreation Department and Downtown Operations Department provide public recycling opportunities.

SWMD also has made it a priority to green some of San Antonio’s largest celebrations. Since 2010, the department has teamed up with the San Antonio Fiesta Commission to establish Fiesta Verde (Green Fiesta). The recycling program takes place during the city’s annual two-week Fiesta celebration. Recycling bins are stationed throughout many of the citywide events to collect plastic bottles, and cups and aluminum cans. SWMD also hands out yellow mesh plastic bags during the two Fiesta parades so that Fiesta parade goers can easily recycle while enjoying the festivities. SWMD staff and volunteers collect the bags at the end of the parades.

What's next

What’s next for the city of San Antonio? The possibilities are endless on this city’s green adventures. SWMD is currently piloting an organic recycling program as well as a voluntary take-back plastic bag program with area retail partners. Additionally, the department hopes to reinforce recycling in the workplace by assisting businesses to implement cost-effective recycling and waste reductions.

The landfills did not fill up overnight, and creating a pathway to zero waste also will not occur overnight. Continuing to educate residents about recycling opportunities is at the top of the SWMD’s list. The department continues to launch outreach programs and to invest in public relations and marketing opportunities. Everything from traditional informational pamphlets to social media is being used to reach SWMD’s 340,000 customers.

San Antonio is creating a pathway to zero waste and enjoying every moment of the journey.


Tiffany Edmonds is public relations manager for the San Antonio Solid Waste Management Department. More information is available at