The City of San Antonio, with its recycling partner company Recommunity, has introduced a new fine for bulky trash items placed in recycling bins in an attempt to reduce unusable refuse from their collections.

The first time households try to recycle an object that qualifies, they’ll receive a warning. After that, they’ll have to pay $25 each time an unacceptable item enters the recycling stream.

A San Antonio resident gets a warning about not disposing of styrofoam or hard plastics in recycling bins. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“Lately, we average 200-250 pounds of dirty diapers per hour, which is just a huge source of  contamination for us,” Recommunity Plant Manager Tim Tiemann said at the City’s recycling facility. “Christmas tree lights, tarps, clothing, animal carcasses, needles, and black trash bags full of mystery items are all big problems.”

In a recycling system intended to save the city money, only paper, plastic, glass, and approved metals are useful.

Every item that has to be removed from the recycling waste stream has to be taken out by hand. The majority of the staff at Recommunity are manual sorters who watch like hawks as objects pass on conveyor belts, and they pick out their targets. When a wrapper, hose, or diaper are put in the wrong bin, they don’t disappear.

“People have to touch those things,” Tiemann said.

Some mistakes are clear misconceptions. On a ride-through recycling pickup, a resident told Rivard Report videographer Kathryn Boyd-Batstone that they thought that a broken coffee machine was recyclable because it had plastic.

“On a diaper box, there is a recycle sign,” Tiemann said. “Some people confuse that because they think it’s the diapers when really it’s just the box.”

Other recycling mistakes, like animals and rubber hoses, are likely to occur because up until now there have been no consequences to contaminating the recycling stream.

If residents need an extra trash barrel, they can contact San Antonio Waste Services directly to request one. If barrels are damaged, especially the lids, replacements can be ordered as well. Dead animal pickup can be arranged directly by calling 3-1-1.

To test your knowledge on which items go in which waste stream, the City offers a surprisingly difficult online sorting game. The most important information for recycling is to look for the universal recycling symbol – ?.

A list of unacceptable items for the recycle bin. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Plastic bags, which are now recyclable, can get caught up in the machinery and slow down the facility’s operations if they’re submitted loose. Almost no loose bags can be captured. The preferred way to receive them is in bundles of about 40 bags inside another bag. Still, the warnings and fines aren’t for plastic bags. The focus is on large hazardous items.

Revenue from the fines won’t finance the City or Recommunity, instead it will be applied to the cost of sending trash to the landfill from the recycling facility. The fewer unwanted items, the more the whole city saves.

All the recyclables are turned into useful items that don’t require new materials to be extracted for their fabrication, reducing their environmental impact while the City itself saves money and land by limiting what they put into landfills.

Ensuring only the correct materials go into the recycling bins also makes the lives of the 60 or so facility employees that sort recyclables easier and improves San Antonio’s chances of reaching overall sustainability goals.

It can also save recyclers $25.

Top image: A ity of San Antonio truck drops off city recycling at Recommunity.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone 

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.