Citywide recycling in St. Petersburg remains a dream

Why “Florida’s First Green City” is last in universal curbside recycling.

click to enlarge RECYCLE THIS: The League of Women Voters’ Julie Kessel speaks about the need for universal curbside recycling at the Public Budget Summit. - Arielle Stevenson
Arielle Stevenson
RECYCLE THIS: The League of Women Voters’ Julie Kessel speaks about the need for universal curbside recycling at the Public Budget Summit.

It’s Tuesday morning in St. Pete’s Old Northeast neighborhood. Blue and green recycling bins overflow with orange juice containers and pizza boxes outside one family’s home. Nearby, their neighbors have fashioned two additional bins from bright orange storage containers; all are filled to the brim.

But these two houses are the exception. According to a study commissioned by St. Petersburg’s League of Women Voters, only 6,100 of the more than 74,000 households in St. Petersburg — less than 10 percent of the city’s residents — currently subscribe to the city’s curbside recycling service. And according to a county survey, only 35 percent of residents are aware that such a program even exists.

The Florida Green Building Coalition awarded St. Petersburg the distinction of “Florida’s First Green City” in 2007. According to the city website, that award was based on St. Pete’s “numerous renowned environmental initiatives,” listing the recycling program among them.

But St. Pete’s recycling program is optional. The LWV study found that out of the top 50 cities in the state, St. Petersburg (the fourth largest in the state) is the only one without a universal curbside recycling program — in other words, a service provided by the city to all residents and financed by the same fee that covers garbage pickup.

The city is even behind in its own county. St. Petersburg is the only municipality in Pinellas without universal curbside recycling except for Redington Shores (which currently has no curbside whatsoever).

The city started its optional curbside program in 2010 amid pressure from citizens.It funds 75 cents of each $4.50 monthly subscription, with participating residents paying $45 annually. After a change in contractors in 2012 from WSI to Waste Pro Management, subscriptions dropped from 8,000 households to the current number.

So unless St. Pete residents are taking recyclable materials to one of the 22 city recycling centers themselves, most residents in Florida’s First Green City aren’t recycling at all.

On Wed., May 15, a standing-room-only crowd packs into the J.W. Cates Recreational Center for a public summit on the city’s budget, which is on its way to being finalized. Mayor Bill Foster and City Council members are there to listen to the citizens. The residents mostly want to talk about two things: funding for youth programs and their strong desire for a citywide universal curbside recycling program.

“I grew up recycling and to me it was a normal thing,” says Britten Cleveland, 28, a transplant from Sarasota. “I thought curbside recycling was everywhere until I came to St. Pete.”

Cleveland works at the local office of the Sierra Club, part of a coalition in St. Petersburg dubbed “The People’s Trash” that was started by the LWV and also includes CONA (Council of Neighborhood Associations), the People’s Budget Review and the Chamber of Commerce.

“We are the only [city] that doesn’t offer universal curbside and yet we have the highest sanitation fees,” Cleveland said at the meeting. “Now we have a groundswell of support and we need to keep it going.”

Cleveland wasn’t the only one asking the city to change its recycling ways.

“This issue has been taken on by the coalition,” said LWV Vice President Julie Kessel. “It’s what the people want. The landfill is filling up and recycling is the best use of waste available.”

Several Council members, including Steve Kornell and Charlie Gerdes, wore buttons supporting the initiative.

“I believe I should leave the earth better than I found it,” Gerdes said. “But to be totally candid, I don’t think it’ll happen this year. But definitely next year.”

Darden Rice, former LWV president and a candidate for City Council District 4, says the coalition grew out of a feeling that the conversation on recycling in St. Pete had grown stagnant. Rice says she and the league wanted to know how St. Petersburg compared with other recycling programs in the county and state.

“We pay the highest fees for trash pickup and yet we don’t have this service that is commonplace everywhere else,” Rice said. “It begs the question, what are we paying for? And the city has a lot of excuses.”

St. Petersburg residents pay $22.33 a month in city service fees, which covers two days of solid waste pickup. But Largo residents pay just $17.65, a fee which covers solid waste, universal curbside and yard waste pickup.

Municipalities with universal curbside recycling yield 80 percent more recyclables per household than cities using a subscription-based service like St. Petersburg.

St. Pete residents who are signed up with Waste Pro Management recycle about 122 pounds per household per year. In Sarasota, home to one of the state’s most successful universal curbside programs, residents recycle an average of 376 pounds per household per year. Tampa collects 7,600 tons of recyclables per year.

Back when the economy was booming, Pinellas County landed a golden-goose contract with Progress Energy (now Duke Power).

“They pay us not only for electricity, but they pay a capacity charge to be able to draw electricity from us,” County Commissioner Ken Welch says. “It’s a great contract and we won’t be able to renew under those terms again.”

Basically, the county makes money by burning garbage and selling the electricity back to Duke Energy for a premium price. That money goes into the Pinellas County Solid Waste Division’s enterprise fund.

“We made $2 million selling electricity back to Duke Energy by burning trash [monthly],” says Rice.

When they can’t burn the trash, it goes into the landfill, and county landfills are filling up faster than anyone had anticipated. Rice says there’s about $120 million in the enterprise fund that can only be used for waste management.

“That fund could, arguably, fund the initial cost for getting St. Pete started with 200,000 bins,” Rice said.

Welch, a resident of St. Pete, isn’t opposed to exploring the idea. But he notes that the current county commission “thinks changing waste-to-energy is a form of recycling,” and says Florida counts that as part of its recycling goal for the state.

“If there was not a fee for St. Pete residents, it would increase participation,” says Welch. “I would love to see St. Pete move to something like that.”

Increased recycling wouldn’t just reduce landfill waste; it could actually pay for itself. Currently, the city pays tipping fees to dump waste into the landfill. Those costs could go down significantly (saving the city money) if more waste were recycled rather than dumped.

“Recoverable materials sell for $40-$120 a ton,” Rice said. “Even if you use the most conservative figure, we could at least break even.”

Last month, local politico Peter Schorsch commissioned St. Pete Polls to do a survey of over 1,600 city residents.

Asked the question “Do you think the city should have universal curbside recycling instead of the optional curbside recycling that is offered now?” 65 percent answered yes, 28 percent said no and 7 percent were unsure.

Now Mayor Bill Foster is proposing an August 27 ballot referendum that would give citizens the chance to voice their opinion about the Pier, the Lens, and universal curbside recycling for an additional $3 monthly fee.

But Councilman Kornell sees Foster’s referendum proposal less as a curbside recycling olive branch than as a way to put the issue to rest.

“To put a $3 fee on the ballot, based on a 15-year-old-study, makes me question whether he’s committed to it,” Kornell said. “I think it’s a clever way to stop the discussion.”

In a survey following the announcement of the referendum, St. Pete Polls asked 744 residents, “Is it your opinion that the City should institute universal residential curbside recycling with an initial increase in sanitation charges for all residential customers of approximately three dollars per month?”

The numbers changed drastically with the addition of the $3 fee, with 49 percent saying no, 40 percent saying yes, and 10 percent unsure.

Kornell, Rice, and others contend that Foster and the city have deliberately skewed the argument by the language that’s used.

“Quit saying mandatory recycling,” says Kornell. “The city doesn’t call it mandatory garbage pickup.”

Mayor Foster's office did not reply to CL's calls for comment on the recyling issue.

Kornell predicts that, based on the Council’s most recent discussions, Foster’s proposed referendum won’t get very far.

“I’m not so sure everyone should be given a choice whether or not to leave the next generation in good shape or not,” Kornell said last week. “It may be good politics, but it’s bad leadership.”

The St. Petersburg City Council decides Thurs., June 6, on whether to put a referendum on the Aug. 27th ballot.

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