Jerry Tidwell is passionate about the stuff most people throw away. He likes cardboard, plastic, aluminum cans, old car batteries and motor oil, but he especially loves household hazardous waste. As CEO of the Williamson County Recycle Center, Jerry would like to see landfill waste in our county approach zero. But he is quick to point out, “I am not a treehugger. I’m a hunter, and I raise game dogs. But there is not enough landfill space, and I want the next generation to be able to go hunting and kayaking and not see trash everywhere.”
Jerry started out to be a civil engineer, but just one year short of his degree, his father suffered a serious head injury while operating heavy equipment, and Jerry and his brothers had to take over the family construction business. That was OK for a first career, but Jerry got tired of “dealing with bureaucrats,” which makes his next move completely inscrutable. He decided to go to Texas A & M to study environmental regulation, so that he could help companies deal with the requirements of DOT (Department of Transportation), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Association), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.)
Jerry and his wife Deann started PA-jer Environmental Management and were soon joined by son Hugh, who completed the A & M training program at age 15, still a course record. One of their first big jobs was to help Texaco Chemical Company safely dispose of 3000 barrels of “unknown chemicals” that were sitting, and corroding, at the corner of Lamar and Airport Boulevard, right over the Edwards aquifer. Because they developed a reputation of being knowledgeable and responsible about hazardous waste, Deann started getting frantic calls from homeowners. “Help me, I’m moving next week and the garbage truck won’t take all these paint cans and chemicals in my garage!” The Tidwells saw a desperate need: unless they branched into household hazardous waste the clandestine disposal of toxic chemicals hidden in black plastic bags would continue unabated.
The Tidwells built their recycling center on 6 beautiful acres just east of Weir. There is not so much as a gum wrapper to be seen on the grounds. Safety is also a priority. All flammable liquids are electrically grounded to a copper rod extending 8 feet into the ground. Even the concrete slab of the warehouse is ringed by a two inch curb which could contain 1350 gallons of hazardous liquid in the unlikely event of a spill. While the men took care of customers, Deann served me coffee and we watched a hummingbird visit the butterfly plants around the office. A big Texas lizard skittered across the sidewalk. At her house a few miles from the recycle center Deann has a vegetable garden; she never uses pesticides. She also raises figs, which she sells to the Monument Café.
There is a steady stream of clients this morning. Georgetown and Hutto residents can get vouchers from their cities which allow free disposal of hazardous waste. A well-dressed man from Round Rock pulls up without a voucher and unloads a trunkful of latex paint and pesticides. I ask him why he is willing to pay 37 cents a pound to get rid of his old paint. He just wants to be a responsible citizen and besides, no one else will take it. The funny part is that the Tidwells can find homes for a lot of that paint. Any product that is usable and still in its original container, they will give away free of charge to anybody who can use it. Jerry says in 2009 they gave away 30,000 pounds of perfectly good latex paint to people who are not particular about color. When people discard cardboard moving boxes, the kind you buy at U-Haul, Hugh folds them down and gives them to the next person who needs to move. “Saves them $10 a box.” Sometimes there is an outbreak of piñata making, and people even come in for old newspapers. Re-use is better than recycling, and in fact is part of their mandate from TCEQ. Nothing taken in by the Williamson County Recycle Center goes into a municipal landfill.
The Tidwells make their living managing hazardous waste for businesses. Recycling is really a sideline for them, but they see it as a service to the community. I think they are right.
The Williamson County Recycle Center is open Thursday and Friday from 8 to 5, and Saturday from 8 to 12. Please visit their website at www.mytexashhw.com for details about services.