What happens to junk dumped along San Antonio roads? KSAT Explains

The KSAT Explains team breaks down what happens to all the illegally dumped items and what it costs taxpayers

A KSAT Explains viewer wanted to know why San Antonio has so much trash dumped along roads. Turns out, it’s a hard question to answer.

SAN ANTONIO – You’ve probably seen it -- junk dumped alongside a road as if someone didn’t know what else to do with it or didn’t care to find out.

The KSAT Explains team found junk along a quiet residential street near Loop 410 and Rigsby avenue. A mattress, a toilet, an old carpet, a car seat, paint cans and more piled up on an empty lot.

And that’s the norm, says Andrew Gutierrez, assistant director of Solid Waste Management with the City of San Antonio.

“Contractor debris, buckets of either paint, chemicals, carpeting, mattresses, household trash -- this is very typical of what you find in illegal dumpsites,” Gutierrez said.

On this particular day, city crews were out cleaning up the mess.

“There’s really no need for this because we have many options to dispose of unwanted items,” Gutierrez said.

And yet, it still happens on every side of San Antonio. And not just on city streets. Major highways, too.

“A lot of the big items that we see are maybe mattresses, couches,” said Laura Lopez with the Texas Department of Transportation. “Litter is a big problem in Texas.”

A $57 million problem

It’s a big problem with a hefty price tag. In 2021, TxDOT spent $57 million on litter pickup.

“Now, if you think about it, that’s money that can go to, you know, repairing and even maintaining state highways,” Lopez said.

TxDOT is responsible for picking up what’s dumped along state highways. It contracts with an outside service that does the pickup twice a month.

If something dumped along the highway is causing a safety concern, Lopez says TxDOT takes care of it as soon as possible.

Sometimes, items are dumped by an accident or negligence.

“A lot of the big items that are found on the highway are coming from trucks that the items were not securely loaded into their vehicle,” said Lopez.

But other times, like at the illegal dumpsite near 410 & Rigsby, junk is dumped on purpose. And on city streets, it’s the city’s Solid Waste Management department that picks it up.

“We get a lot of our information through the public records, 311, and reports of illegal dumping to us,” Gutierrez said. “And so we have we have to pull a list every day, and our drivers come out, and our crew comes out, and we clean it up.”

But there are also spots where they know illegal dumping happens again and again. Crews don’t have to wait for someone to call it in. They head to those hot spots weekly.

Gutierrez said the best way to report illegal dumping to the city is to call 311.

“As soon as we get the information, it is pretty immediate,” he said. “We’ll address it within 24 to 48 hours.”

Trash dumped in a lot at Rigsby Ave. and Loop 410. (KSAT)

2,300 tons of trash

City crews picked up 2,232 tons of illegally dumped trash in 2021. They made 8,388 stops to check out illegal dumping. Gutierrez estimates that’s $75,000 to $80,000 in disposal fees that are ultimately passed on to you, the taxpayer.

The junk goes to a landfill, though crews try to recycle what they can. They can also turn brush into mulch.

“But as you see right here, there’s not much items that you can recycle there,” Gutierrez said of the junk dumped near 410 & Rigsby, “And we also got to be aware of when people throw away chemicals and all that because those things can find themselves in our storm drains, in our waterways, and so, they impact the environment in a negative way.”

If you get caught dumping along a state highway, items large or small, you can be fined up to $500. That accelerates to a maximum of $2,000 if you’re a repeat offender.

On city streets, the fine is anywhere from roughly $100 to $500.

But the reality of someone facing a penalty is rare, Gutierrez admits.

“We’ve seen somebody -- they’ve reported license plates to us and so forth. But the thing is to prove that that person that was actually driving that car, I think that’s where the problem lies,” he said. “It’s done typically in the early morning hours or late at night, and so there’s not really too many people catching folks doing this.”

Crews from San Antonio's Solid Waste Management remove trash in a lot near Rigsby Ave. and Loop 410. (KSAT)

Finding an answer

Funding was approved for a team dedicated to clearing illegal dumpsites in the city’s most recent budget. Previously, Solid Waste would pull resources where they could, diverting crews from other tasks.

The budget allocation is hopefully part of the answer to the ugly problem of illegal dumping, but answering the question of why someone would do it in the first place is much more complicated, mainly because there are alternatives.

The city hosts two curbside collections for brush and bulky items every year. You can take large items to a landfill four times a year and dump them for free.

There are household hazardous waste drop-off centers, and four times annually, those are mobile events around the city.

You can also call 311 to schedule an “out of cycle” collection. City crews will come to pick up what you want to get rid of for a fee. Find more information at www.sanantonio.gov/swmd.

“It’s very frustrating. This impacts everybody,” Gutierrez said. “It negatively affects their property values. It’s a breeding ground for pests, mosquitoes, flies, disease-carrying rodents. And so, at the end of the day, we foot the bill for this. We being the taxpayers.”

Discover more KSAT Explains stories by clicking here.

About the Authors:

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

Valerie Gomez is lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. She began her career in 2014 and has been with KSAT since 2017. She helped create KSAT’s first digital-only newscast in 2018, and her work on KSAT Explains and various specials have earned her a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media and multiple Emmy nominations.