Focused on providing the best waste management services and programs for the City of San Antonio, the Solid Waste Management Department is invested in keeping their employees and communities safe,
educated, and engaged in all that they do.
Established 18 years ago, San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department’s (SWMD) mission is “to provide reliable collection and sustainable services to the community, safely and professionally, while protecting San Antonio’s environment, resources, and the health of its citizens through dedicated and caring teamwork.” Formerly known as the Environmental Services Department, and prior to that a division of the Public Works Department, today the city’s Solid Waste Management Department, with 805 employees, focuses on providing the best waste management services and programs for the City of San Antonio. The SWMD provides weekly curbside collection of garbage, recycling and organics for 371,000 single resident households. They also provide curbside brush and bulky collection two times for each per year. There are a total of 636,000 households that have access to brush, bulky item and household hazardous waste drop-off locations, as well as quarterly free landfill disposal days.
The SWMD has a single-stream recycling program, where they ask customers to keep it simple and recycle the ‘Core 4’: 1) glass bottles and jars, 2) plastic bottles and jugs, 3) metal cans, and 4) paper and cardboard. In 2024, the Department will move its
recycling material to a new materials recovery facility that features state-of-the-art technology as well as an observation deck for the public to see the recycling process.
Encouraging New Skills
According to SWMD Director, David Newman, industry challenges have affected almost every aspect of the operation. Obtaining new trucks and getting truck parts is extremely slow. He says that cities are fairly rigid in their procurement rules and procedures and that inflexibility, along with the continued supply chain challenges makes life very difficult and expensive. “We have been affected by all the factors that have challenged many others—the cost of labor, fuel, vehicles, and disposal have all risen.” Vacancies have also been an ongoing challenge and to address this, the SWMD has a robust recruiting program, including an apprenticeship program to train participants to obtain a CDL through on-the-job paid training. In the apprenticeship program, candidates receive hands-on learning, both in the collection operations and in a driving simulator. Apprentices can even take the CDL exam directly through the SWMD’s training division. This program has been highly successful. According to Organizational Manager, Clifford Hughes, 23 City of San Antonio employees have obtained their CDL through the program since January 2023.
SWMD also has a job progression program for mechanics to encourage them to develop new skills. “We are continually challenged, but we work through it because we have to provide the service today,” comments Newman.
The Department also has a very detailed Safety Management System. In 2019, the SWMD was the first municipality in the world to achieve the ISO 450001 certification for safety best practices. The department operates their own safety team, who focus on perfecting the certification process for much of the year. Practice audits and safety roundtables are a few of their tactics.
SWMD has two outreach programs—one for schools and community organizations, and another for the business community. “Before COVID, both teams were making a high number of in-person presentations. Those numbers dropped significantly during the pandemic. SWMD is working diligently to increase that activity through cold calling, community engagement, traditional media campaigns, and social media,” Marketing Manager, Marcus Lee explains. “These methods have engaged many new customers and students. Specifically for school presentations, these have all combined to get those number of presentations to rise again in 2023 back to the pre-COVID volume.”
Three full-time Education Coordinators will make more than 500 presentations in 2023. In addition to schools, the team meets with HOAs, community organizations, churches, and council district events. Presentations are for all ages, can be in-person or virtual, and can be presented in English and Spanish. The program has been very successful partly because of how simple it is. Groups wanting to schedule a presentation fill out a form via the department’s website, sarecycles.org. Presentations can last 30 mins to 1 hour depending on the focus of the presentation and duration of Q&A at the end. Groups have been very pleased with the presentations, making favorable post-event survey comments, sending handwritten thank you cards from students, posting compliments on social media, and even engaging their council representatives to thank the city for this service. This program also produces original learning materials that are very specific to San Antonio.
The SWMD has other community outreach programs as well. In 2022, the SWMD hosted four open houses at its four service centers. These were very well attended. Customers got to see a first-hand look at the Department’s operations and, especially for the children, they loved seeing inside the big trucks. SWMD also provides collection and recycling services to major San Antonio public events including Fiesta parades, New Year’s Eve, and Earth Day—all busy times for the department. At Fiesta, attendees recycle, and the Department gives out Fiesta medals. Medals are a huge tradition at this event.
Addressing Illegal Dumping
Most municipalities share a common problem of illegal dumping. To address the issue, San Antonio City Council unanimously approved $840,000 in FY2022 and another $845,644 in FY2023 in improvements for SWMD to specifically address illegal dumping.
These improvements added crews to collect illegal dumping and litter, as well as cleaning up homeless encampments. Prior to these improvements, there were no dedicated crews collecting this type of waste. Unfortunately, it seems that this problem is growing. However, these crews are doing their best to clean it up as fast as it comes.
Adding off-road equipment was also part of this improvement. The crews handle waste on the side of the road, in drainage ditches, under bridges, and in deeply wooded areas. Current SWMD trucks and vehicles cannot get to many of these places. The Department has learned over the years that illegal dumping attracts even more illegal dumping. The sooner these areas are cleaned, the volume of new material can be reduced. The crews have it down to a science. Some rake up discarded items while others focus on getting large waste into the truck.
SWMD is projecting to collect more than 10,000 locations of illegal dumping, more than 200 miles of litter, and clean up over 400 homeless encampments. City Council also challenged the SWMD to raise awareness of this problem. In response, the Department will launch a robust campaign on the issue, entitled FIGHT DIRTY. The dual meaning of this phrase encourages citizens to not only fight against the ugly problem itself, but also to become more active in watching, reporting, recording, and engaging people they see or catch illegal dumping, and start to fight dirty directly against the perpetrators. Illegal dumpers should know that SWMD and the community is watching, and they will be prosecuted.
The campaign will also remind residents that there are several free and legal ways to dispose of materials. SWMD operates four bulky waste drop off centers in each quadrant of San Antonio. These locations accept furniture and mattresses, appliances, tires and many other large items. The Department sponsors free landfill day once per quarter and provides curbside collection of bulky items twice per year. Illegal dumping can be reported to 3-1-1 and the SWMD will deploy a team to provide cleanup service.
In 2016 SWMD expanded a what began as a pilot program into citywide curbside organic collection. This program allows residents to combine food and yard waste in one cart for weekly collection. They also have extensive participation with yard waste. While not many people are using the cart for food waste yet, SWMD believes that food waste composting has the strongest potential for overall landfill diversion. A large and integrated campaign will be deployed in 2024 to encourage higher customer participation.
Newman says, “We are excited about changing technologies in the industry like routing and service verification. We are currently using Artificial Intelligence to help identify contamination in our organic loads and plan to do the same for recycling in the future.” | WA
For more information, visit www.sarecycles.org.