San Antonio has come a long way in keeping food waste out of the landfill, but the city still needs more education and access to local food suppliers and waste processors, panelists said Thursday. 

The City’s Solid Waste Management Department’s hosted the discussion at Phil Hardberger Park under the banner of ReWorksSA, a Solid Waste division that focuses on commercial entities. San Antonio does not offer municipal recycling services for businesses, but ReWorksSA collaborates with on a voluntary basis to find recycling and composting providers and to reduce the city’s waste overall.

ReWorksSA has certified 114 businesses in San Antonio as at least having a recycling program, with many choosing from among 27 other voluntary steps to reduce waste, Solid Waste Director David McCary said. That’s even with shifting recycling markets around the world that have raised questions among consumers about where their plastics, glass, aluminum, and paper are going. 

“Don’t let anyone tell you there’s doom and gloom,” McCary told audience members. “We’re very excited.”

On the residential side, San Antonio has taken big strides in upping its recycling and composting rate, McCary said. The City’s residential recycling rate – tons of material recycled and composted divided by total tons of material collected – was 36 percent that year, according to Solid Waste’s annual report for fiscal year 2018. 

However, that fell slightly short of the City’s goal of 38 percent for 2018 and is well below a goal of a 60 percent recycling rate by 2025. 

Reaching that goal will require a shift in mindset among many residents, with some of the panelists’ businesses leading the way.

Steve McHugh, chef and owner of Cured at the Pearl Brewery, said he works to create a “100-percent utilization” kitchen, where almost every waste product is turned into something else.

At Cured, McHugh rotates the menu to serve seasonal produce and meats he gets from local farmers and ranchers. Pulp left over from fresh juice made every day at the bar gets repurposed as marmalade and jams for its popular charcuterie boards. McHugh said he looks for the off-colored and “ugly” produce when he shops for ingredients at the Pearl’s Farmers Market.

He instills these attitudes in his staff, but admits that “it’s tough, especially when they’re not raised the way you were.” For McHugh, the conservation ethic began in childhood with his Wisconsin farming family. His dad often would have McHugh and his brothers run alongside his truck, picking up bottles and cans to be redeemed for cash, he said. 

Such a strong conservation ethic is what Snooze, a Colorado-based breakfast and brunch restaurant that recently expanded into Texas, is creating through its “sustainability 101” training, said panelist Chris Edwards, a San Antonio general manager.

The restaurant only uses “very small” walk-in coolers and makes large batches of ingredients, such as green chile, that can be used across the whole menu to ensure little to none remains at the end of a day, Edwards said. It also uses an Orca food digester to eliminate food waste because of the difficulty of finding a local compost hauler when opening in San Antonio, he said. 

“They absolutely hate it at the top when I call it a trash robot, but it’s kind of a trash robot,” Edwards said. 

San Antonio businesses now have more compost options, thanks in part to panelist Kate Gruy Jaceldo, who co-founded a composting business with her mother. Jaceldo said she too experienced an upbringing that taught her to think carefully about waste. She grew up in rural South Texas with a lack of municipal garbage collection. 

“I’ve always been acutely aware that when you throw trash away, it doesn’t just disappear,” Jaceldo said. “I just have always cared about it.”

Jaceldo ended up starting her business, Compost Queens, in part to assist those who think like her but are turned off by the smells and bugs associated with backyard composting or the City’s green organics bins. Compost Queens use the bokashi method, which breaks food down via fermentation to reduce foul odors.

“We’re throwing a lot of this food waste in the trash,” Jaceldo said.  “We found a system to make it easier for the consumer.”

Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, said that the efforts like those at Cured and Snooze to reduce waste is drawing down the amount restaurants are donating to the Food Bank. That’s a good thing, but it does present some challenges, he said. 

“I need that waste to feed families,” Cooper said. “But I also need businesses to be successful because if they’re not, I have to feed their employees.”

Cooper told audience members about an arrangement the Food Bank was able to work out with coffee giant Starbucks, in which individual stores had leftover food but in quantities small enough to stop the Food Bank from being able to pick it up for free. The deal involves Starbucks paying for pickups, receiving tax write-offs for donations, and the delivery of Starbucks meals to the Haven For Hope downtown homeless shelter and Alamo Colleges, Cooper said. 

Overall, businesses and consumers alike need to be more “deliberate” in how they approach food issues, Cooper said. 

“We need to be thinking more holistically and not taking it for granted that it’ll always be there,” he said. 

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