Monika Maeckle

Curbs on garbage day are about to get a little more crowded – and green.

The composting and organics recycling program ordinance was approved by City Council yesterday. So think twice before you throw away that moldy bread–there’s now a way to avoid the landfill and contribute to a growing, green industry that can recycle those scraps into nutrient-rich soil.

San Antonio will implement the citywide program in February.   Residential customers can contact COSA Solid Waste Management at (210) 207-6428, if interested. The program entails a $3 fee for the large, green composting container, and will make it easier for residents to dispose of yard waste, kitchen scraps, even pizza boxes and keep unnecessary trash from crowded landfills.

Curbside compost recycling
City Council will vote on citywide curbside organics recycling this Thursday. We say, Yes, please. –photo by Iris Dimmick

Previously published:

The proposed program is the subject of an addendum to the City’s 10-year recycling and resource recovery plan and SA2020 goal of reducing material sent to landfills by 60% by the year 2020.  In a B-Session December 5, 2012, Council voted to move that goal five years, to 2025, and adopt curbside composting as another strategy in diverting landfill waste.  The proposed changes anticipate an 85% participation rate citywide for green cart recycling by 2025.  The ordinance goes before Council Thursday for a final vote.

“I don’t think anybody else in the state has an opt-in subscription curbside organics recycling service like this,”   said Nick Galus, senior project manager for Solid Waste at the City of San Antonio.

For the year-long pilot program, San Antonio purchased 30,000 48-gallon plastic green carts to add to the blue and grey ones already used for nonorganic recyclables and trash at a cost of $1.8 million in September 2011.   A year-long contract with locally based New Earth, Inc., to turn the organic trash into mulch, compost, and soil mixes added another $195,000 to the tab.

Austin has had a curbside yard waste-only collection program for ten years and recently announced a program similar to San Antonio’s pilot project in early January.  The Austin program will include 7,800 households and cost $485,000, according to the Austin American Statesman.

From organic trash to gold for your garden in just 4-6 months.  John Kalmbach shows off COSA compost.  --Photo by Iris Dimmick
From organic trash to gold for your garden in just 4-6 months. New Earth General Manager John Kalmbach shows off COSA compost. –Photo by Iris Dimmick

“It (the pilot project) went well,” said Tiffany Edmonds, public relations manager for the City’s Organics Program. “People liked it. We think they’ll want to keep their carts.”

Edmonds said that San Antonio looked at composting initiatives in Seattle, Portland, San Jose and San Francisco for ideas in developing the program.  The program roll-out should begin in February, she said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 20 – 35% of landfill content is food scraps and yard waste.  SAWS also encourages composting as an alternative to garbage disposals, which compound the system’s problems with aging sewer pipes.

“The basic rule of thumb is solid waste goes to a landfill and liquid waste goes to a wastewater treatment plant,” said Meg Connor, Director of Environmental Services at SAWS, explaining that introducing any type of solid material into sewer lines designed for liquids cause blockages and sewer overflows.

“Organic solids can be readily composted and put to beneficial use,” said Connor.  “They don’t need to end up in a landfill or a wastewater treatment plant.”

So what does this mean for San Antonio residents?

Dozens of dirt and compost piles occupy the 120 acres that make up New Earth, Inc.  --photo by Iris Dimmick
Dozens of dirt and compost piles occupy the 120 acres that make up New Earth, Inc. –photo by Iris Dimmick

Residents who opt in and agree to pay the $3 monthly fee will receive a 48-gallon green cart for weekly pick-up of organic waste.  Residents who choose not to participate can continue to dispose of organic waste via trash bins or at-home compost units.   In time, waste managers hope that by diverting organic waste, most of which is high volume grass clippings, residents can downsize to a smaller, less expensive cart and save money and landfill space in one swoop.  If approved by Council on Thursday, roll-out schedules will be given to homeowners in the ensuing weeks.   “We’ll be leaving door hangers sometime in February,” said Edmonds.

What happens to the waste once it’s picked up?

Throughout the pilot program, the organic waste has been hauled to New Earth, a local family owned business employing 50 people at its two locations, one at IH-10 East near Foster Road and another in Conroe.   San Antonio organic trash is taken to the 120- acre IH-10 location where trucks drive onto a massive scale, and each load of  scraps, yard clippings and other organics are weighed.   The City pays New Earth $19.50 per ton for the waste.

After weigh-in, truck drivers dump their loads, which are then spread by a wheel-loader and sorted manually.  Removal of plastic bags is one of the  most labor intensive parts of the process, said New Earth General Manager John Kalmbach during a recent tour of the facility.

“Sometimes those green carts serve all-in-one for trash collection, especially after a football Sunday when the blue bins fill up,” he said.  “People tend to just start using the green cart for everything.”   Sorting the nonorganic material from the organic increases labor costs, he said.

Plastic material is then dumped into a City recycling dumpster.   When the organic material reaches a certain size, usually after about two months, the pile is ground up by a diesel grinder.    The material then sits for two – three months.

As natural processes ferment and decompose the pile, New Earth sprays water on the piles regularly to expedite the process.  When the temperature of the pile reaches 150 -160 degrees for at least several weeks, harmful bacteria are obliterated and the waste proceeds with its transformation to compost.

The piles continue to be watered, turned, then screened, with more plastic removal following.  Just prior to completion, large chips too big to decompose are separated to be used as mulch.   After four-six months, your kitchen scraps and yard waste are transformed into mineral rich compost that is blended with soil, sold as is, or marketed separately as mulch.  “Nothing goes to waste, ” said Kalmbach.

“I hope it goes forward.  It’s something good,” said David Rodriguez, Texas A&M Agrilfe Extension Agent who oversees the Bexar County Master Gardener program.  “If you really break it down dollar-to-dollar and the two standard trash cans can be retrofitted with smaller ones that will save residents money, everybody wins,” he said.

More info on the organics recycling program can be found on the COSA Solid Waste Management FAQ page.

Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @monikam.

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Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...