If you haven’t noticed on Facebook, everyone’s posting photos of the latest Fiesta medal they’ve scored. People will soon be sporting sashes loaded with pins and medals.
Fiesta 2014 is just around the corner and with it comes fun, frivolity, and the one thing everyone wants to forget about: trash. The biggest events, the street parades, are also the biggest sources of trash during the festival. But, thanks to a program started several years ago, everything is changing.
Fiesta is getting greener.
Five years ago, Evan Smith, then editor of Texas Monthly, sat down with newly elected Mayor Julián Castro to talk about his vision for San Antonio’s future. Nestled in the interview was one key sentence that caught my attention. Talking about his environmental focus for the future, Castro said “We’re going to pass a green events ordinance, as a couple of other cities have done, so that recycling is an integral part of large events like Fiesta.”
Even earlier, Robert Rivard campaigned as editor of the Express-News to address Fiesta litter and has since carried that campaign to the Rivard Report.
[Read More: Fiesta on the San Antonio River’s ‘Garbage Reach’]
The following month, after a meeting of the Fiesta Commission governing body, Castro pulled me aside and asked my help in turning Fiesta green. Thus began the Fiesta Verde initiative, a festival-wide effort to identify areas within the 11-day party where events not only demonstrate sustainability, but provide an opportunity to educate those who attend about how to do the right thing with their Fiesta waste.
Five years ago very little was in place in terms of recycling or waste reduction in San Antonio. Some of the smaller events like PACFest at Palo Alto College had started to implement recycling, thanks to the efforts of folks like Denise Richter. While the rest of the nation celebrated Earth Day earlier in the year, San Antonio held it as a part of the first weekend of Fiesta. But those small efforts hardly dented the amount of waste generated by more than 3 million people having fun.
What made that collection even worse was how it was collected. In an effort to clean the streets up as quickly as possible and turn them back to service, several city departments would wait until after the parades to blow, rake, scoop, and vacuum the trash right off the streets. Anyone who ever stuck around can remember the horrible mess left after three or four hours of having fun with the family.
So the Fiesta Verde team, comprised of the Fiesta Commission, the City of San Antonio, and Keep San Antonio Beautiful, started looking at new approaches to not only cleaning up the routes, but diverting as many recyclables as possible away from the landfills. Each year the team tries different approaches and learns from those attempts.
As president of the Keep San Antonio Beautiful executive committee, I decided to take a trip to Portland for the Portland Rose Festival to see how they handled the problem. Their festival, while smaller than Fiesta, is similar. For more than 13 years, the Rose Festival has been recognized as one of the Cleanest and Greenest Festivals by the International Festival and Events Association.
During that trip I volunteered with the Portland General Electric/SOLV team to work with them in cleaning up the Grand Floral Parade, that city's equivalent of the Battle of Flowers Parade. The experience was an eye-opener for me, not only in how they tackled the problem, but in how long the journey has been for them. While everyone along the route was ready to lend a hand, it had taken the Rose Festival 15 years doing things the same way to get to that point. It showed me sustainability is not an overnight process but a journey.
Through those efforts, Portland collects almost 40 percent of the parade waste as recyclables. Cleaning up of the parade route is not something that gets underway after everyone leaves, but is a part of the parade itself. Our cleanup crew was the last parade entry and received a standing ovation as we walked through the Memorial Coliseum following the last band. Tackling the cleanup this way has the route cleaned up in 15 minutes instead of the 2-3 hours it takes us here in San Antonio.
Last year was the first year we implemented some of the ideas from Portland in our own Fiesta Verde parade cleanup efforts. To distribute bags we had volunteers along the route handing out bags to people as they found their seats.
Throughout the parade our volunteers encouraged people to recycle their plastics and cans in the yellow bags and collected bags when they were full. At the end of the parade, instead of trying to take the bags back to trucks, we moved them to the center of the street, just like Portland does, and had crews collect the bags for recycling.
Not only did we distribute yellow mesh recycling bags, but we also handed out brown trash bags so people had a place to put their trash and recyclables.
We found that people would collect their trash if we gave them a place to collect it. In fact, people were asking for bags as soon as they got to the routes, a change in behavior much like I saw in Portland.
Last year, at the end of the Battle of Flowers Parade, we were amazed at the results. No longer were the streets ankle or knee-deep in trash; they were cleaner than before the parade. Cleanup took less time with less waste collected. But the big game-changer was the recycling rate for the parade. Whereas years past yielded about 10-15 percent recycling, last year’s Battle of Flowers Parade had a 35 percent recycling rate, five percent less than Portland’s parade.
But things didn’t work so well for the Fiesta Flambeau Parade. As many of you probably remember, the end of that parade was met with one of the largest downpours we’ve had during a parade. It resulted in organizers halting the parade around 10 p.m. for the safety of everyone.
For us, it curtailed our ability to collect the trash and recyclables as Mother Nature washed everything off the streets and into San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River. As several noted, the impact the storm runoff had on our waterways was painfully evident by morning. It also served as a warning that what we don’t clean up during and after the parades ends up in our city’s treasured river and creeks. It’s inspired us to work even harder at parade cleanup to reduce or eliminate that impact.
This year even more changes are being put in place. Walmart has signed on as a sponsor of the Fiesta Verde parade cleanup efforts and is providing mesh bags and other cleanup items. The company's participation is helping turn the program into a sustainable one. The Battle of Flowers Parade continues to develop innovative ideas for cleaning up that parade, bringing in local high school students to help with the Green Team.
Keep San Antonio Beautiful serves as the volunteer coordinator for the efforts, bringing in groups from across the city. This year’s volunteer recruitment is still underway and volunteers are needed for both parades. Volunteers will distribute bags and encourage people to recycle before and during the start of the parades. For their efforts, volunteers will receive a Fiesta Verde t-shirt and, yes, a coveted Fiesta Verde medal. They’ll also be entered in a drawing to win a bicycle.
To help volunteer, contact Christina Aronhalt at (210) 219-9596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Featured/top image: Fiesta Verde volunteers pile trash after a successful run. Photo courtesy Keep San Antonio Beautiful.