SHADY HILLS — Last year, workers at Pasco’s trash-burning plant recovered nearly $10,000 in pocket change.
But the nickels and dimes aren’t enough to offset the bottom line of the county’s residential recycling program. Too few people participate, and too many bottles and cans get tossed into a garbage pail instead of a recycling bin.
It is one of the reasons the county is confronting a potential $190 million expansion of its incinerator. Tepid recycling leads to inefficiency at the plant — igniting plastic bottles produces more heat than other waste, requiring a slowdown of the garbage burning to control temperatures. More to the point, bottles and cans fill the incinerator to capacity with tens of thousands of tons of material that could be saved and reused.
County officials hope that is about to change.
An idea discussed publicly nearly 18 months ago — offering residents weekly curbside pick-up of recyclable materials — is poised for commission consideration March 14. The board will be asked to bless a pilot program offering weekly recycling service to 1,500 homes in two areas of the county. County officials declined to identify the neighborhoods last week, saying the details were not finalized.
Allan Biddlecomb, the county’s acting solid waste director, acknowledged the plan during a Feb. 26 tour of the incinerator for Commissioner Jack Mariano and journalists from the Tampa Bay Times.
"We need to push this recycling program much more strongly,’’ Mariano told county staff and managers for Covanta, the private company operating the plant that burns trash, creating steam for turbines to produce electricity.
The move to bolster residential recycling comes after commissioners objected to a staff plan to spend $400,000 to bury garbage at a privately-owned, out-of-county landfill during the trash plant’s twice-a-year maintenance. That Feb. 19 decision followed the departure of longtime Solid Waste Director Jon Power. He resigned in January after balking at behind-the-scenes discussions to consider a regional authority to buy the landfill owned by ACMS Inc. in Bushnell, Sumter County.
Even without commission approval, county trash is being diverted to the ACMS landfill because "we had a little bit more budget available to us,’’ Biddlecomb said.
The incinerator maintenance work began Feb. 24 and is scheduled to conclude April 6. The county has a 15-year contract to dispose of household waste at the ACMS landfill, on an as-needed basis, at a cost of $26.49 a ton, about the same per-ton cost to burn it.
Better recycling is a way to help defer expansion of the 27-year-old trash plant. It can process 1,050 tons of waste per day and handled nearly 340,000 tons in 2017. It also recycled more than 11,500 tons of metals, including the coins. The money, retrieved from the ash after incineration, is sold as scrap metal.
But the plant also burned 47,600 tons of bottles and cans that could have been recycled, according to calculations from a 2011 study of waste fed to the incinerator. And the higher heat from igniting all the plastic diminished the plant’s annual burn capacity by about 30,000 tons or 8 percent, said Kevin Piska, Covanta’s on-site facility manager.
Under the pilot program suggested to commissioners last year, residents would see their twice-a-week garbage pick-up cut in half, but their twice-monthly curbside recycling increased to once a week. Currently, haulers pick up cardboard, paper, glass, cans and plastics two Wednesdays per month.
"It has to be easy,’’ said Patrick Walsh of Land O’Lakes, Covanta’s business manager in Pasco and Lake counties. "I still forget which Wednesday is mine.’’
In the year ending Sept. 30, the county recycled 6,615 tons of material, a 57 percent increase from the previous year. The jump is attributed to the county adding paper and cardboard to the list of items picked up curbside.
Despite the gains, recycling accounts for less than 2 percent of the solid waste processed by Pasco. The county has said previously nearly three-fourths of all households don’t participate in curbside recycling.
The state has set a goal of recycling 75 percent of solid waste — measured by weight — for 2020. Pasco County has met interim goals in prior years because of credits it receives for generating electricity from its waste.
Recycling advocate Lewis Corvene of Hudson said the public would be better served if the county maintained twice-weekly trash pick-up in addition to the weekly recyclables collection.
"I recycle diligently, but I’m the only one on my block doing it,’’ said Corvene. "If they pick up garbage just once a week, they’re getting over on you. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.’’
Instead, he said, the county should end optional recycling.
"It should be mandatory, but I don’t see it happening. If we really want to save the money on building a new incinerator, that would be the way to do it – make recycling mandatory.’’
Contact C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2