Residents who repeatedly toss dirty diapers into blue recycling bins could face a $50 fee, but the City’s top solid waste official said the fine would come only after multiple warnings.

San Antonio City Council voted 9-2 Thursday to amend the city’s ordinances to allow the fee after Solid Waste Director David McCary told a council committee in February that diaper contamination is costing the city $1.2 million a year in excess charges from its recycling contractor, ReCommunity.

McCary told council members that his staff plans to issue a warning for the first diaper offense. After a second, staff members would offer to send a Solid Waste employee to talk to the resident about proper recycling and defer the fee if the resident agrees to meet. Only after the third improper diaper disposal might a resident be fined, he said.

“If they ask us to give them one more shot, I’d rather have compliance,” McCary said. “I don’t care about the $50. I just want them to get the message.”

The overall rate of contamination – non-recyclable items being thrown into recycling bins – fluctuates but is decreasing over time, according to Solid Waste Management Department data. The City imposed a $25 contamination fee in 2016.

However, the rate of contamination for diapers is headed in the opposite direction, rising from 53 pounds per hour in August 2016 to 103 pounds per hour in November 2017.

“It’s not just in low-income neighborhoods,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. “In fact, what we found is this is across the entire city.”

Sculley also said ReCommunity shared data with city officials showing that San Antonio has the highest rate of diaper contamination of any city in which the contractor works.

The Rivard Report asked the City’s communications staff for these data but had not receive them as of 5 p.m. Thursday.

McCary said the fee is necessary not only to reduce the charge to the City but also to protect the health of the workers who sort recycling by hand.

“They have gloves, but you’re still talking about diapers; the ones and the twos,” he said.

Councilman John Courage (D9) and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) voted against the fee, arguing that it could affect the ability of low-income families to pay their CPS Energy bills.

Charges for the Solid Waste Management Department are included in bills from the city’s electric and natural gas utility.

“What you’re doing is commendable,” Courage said to McCary. “I just really take exception to the steps you’re putting forward at this time.”

Jonathan Tijerina, senior director of corporate communications for CPS Energy, said the utility does not shut off service because of unpaid waste fees. It will only shut off service for unpaid electric or gas charges “after we’ve exhausted every possible option,” he said.

Other council members focused on residents’ roles in putting waste and recycling in their proper bins.

“When you hit them in the pocketbook, it does change behavior,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg complimented Solid Waste Management Department staff on their research and methodical approach to changing the ordinance.

“Just like a dirty diaper, if you don’t bundle it up properly there could be unintended consequences,” Nirenberg said.

Here’s a quick guide to the city’s recycling rules:

In blue recycling bins, residents can 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.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.

Read more