A plan to allow city staff to charge a $50 fee for diapers tossed in recycling and organics bins will go to a full San Antonio City Council vote after a committee signed off on it Tuesday.

Solid Waste Director David McCary told the council’s Community Health and Equity Committee that the fee will give his department another tool to discourage residents from improperly disposing of diapers, a practice he said is costing the city in surcharges from its recycling processor.

“We believe that almost all of our residents actually are aware that dirty diapers do not belong in the recycling or organics carts,” he said. “And although the number of customers actually contaminating the recycling with dirty diapers is small, the effects are significant.”

ReCommunity, a recycling contractor that processes the city’s residential waste, is now dealing with more than than 100 pounds of diapers per hour that have been thrown in the city’s blue recycling bins, McCary said.

Because of the difficulty of processing the diapers and the way they contaminate otherwise marketable recycled paper, plastic, cans, and glass, ReCommunity “requested extra financial compensation” of $12.50 per ton that now adds up to $1.2 million per year, McCary said.

The amount of non-recyclable waste — not just diapers — in San Antonio’s recycling stream has always fluctuated, according to a background memo posted ahead of the meeting. Last year, as much as 28 percent of the city’s recycling was contaminated.

In 2016, the city approved a $25 fee on all non-recyclable waste disposed in its blue recycling bins. The proposal would up the fee to $50 for diapers only.

The contamination rate is now down to 18 percent, the memo states. But the diaper contamination rate has gone in the opposite direction, rising from 53 pounds per hour in August 2016 to 103 pounds per hour in November 2017.

“Out of all of the contaminants, San Antonio has a particular problem with dirty diapers being placed into the recycling cart,” the memo states. “Diapers are not recyclable; they belong in the brown cart.”

If the city can cut the diaper contamination rate below 50 pounds per hour for six consecutive months, the payment will drop to $600,000, McCary said, adding that dropping below 5 percent will end the extra payment entirely.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), chair of the Community Health and Equity Committee, said the problem is citywide and not confined to certain neighborhoods. Both adult and child diapers are winding up in recycling, she said, adding that people would get a warning before a fine.

“City leadership believes in education and warnings to reduce contamination before they go into fining,” she said.

McCary stressed that the point of the fee is to change resident’s recycling practices, not to generate revenue. About 97 percent of those warned to change their recycling ways have done so without a fine, he said.

The $25 fee has generated $25,000 since it was implemented, he said.

City Council has not yet set a date for the vote on the diaper fee.

McCary said Solid Waste Management will also continue its outreach and education campaigns on how to properly dispose of waste.

In blue recycling bins, residents can generally dispose of most paper, plastics, glass, and metals. That does not include aluminum foil, auto glass, hardcover books, light bulbs, shredded paper, waxed paper, foam packing peanuts, and toys.

Leaves, grass, shrub and tree trimmings, food scraps, and food-soiled paper go in the green organics bins.

Everything else (except for dead animals, electronics, and hazardous waste) goes in the brown trash bins.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.