ST. PETERSBURG — The city's first-ever curbside recycling program is headed for the scrap heap.
Waste Services of Florida Inc. told city officials Thursday that it won't renew its contract when it expires in October, dashing the dreams of neighborhood leaders who had tried to salvage the service after months of sluggish sales.
"It makes me sad," said Tim Martin, a representative with the Council of Neighborhood Associations, who had sought more subscribers for the struggling service. "Now the city really needs to re-evaluate and reconsider a program that's not voluntary. This felt like a half-hearted attempt to recycle."
Despite a recent push by residents and the city to entice more customers, WSI had signed up about 8,000, falling well short of its goal of 24,000.
Mayor Bill Foster said he'll seek bids from other companies so there won't be any service interruptions, but he intends to keep it voluntary.
"Logic tells me that if I can't get people to pay $2.75 a month for a great service at a great value, it'll be a tougher sell to customers if we force it down their throats," Foster said. "I haven't given up on this dream of being a recycling community. It'll be voluntary, though.
"But I'm at a loss as to why it wasn't better received by the community," Foster said. "I had a great experience with this vendor."
Company officials couldn't be reached for comment, but some customers said service was spotty.
Lorraine Margeson, an environmental activist who lives in the Mangrove Bay neighborhood, said she dropped the service after one week because the 18-gallon containers weren't big enough and didn't have lids, allowing materials to get blown around.
"It was just a dinky plastic bin," Margeson said. "I already recycle and it didn't fit my needs. The bins would be left in the middle of the road. It was just sloppy."
St. Petersburg was the last city in Pinellas County to provide curbside service when Foster and the City Council approved it in 2010. But it was introduced as only a voluntary program. Other cities make it mandatory.
WSI beat out three other bids for the St. Petersburg contract by offering the lowest rate.
Some said that WSI's fees were too low and wouldn't be able to sustain the service. Andy Toller, district manager for Waste Pro of Florida Inc., said his company provides curbside recycling to 450 customers without marketing help from the city. They pay $17 more a year than WSI customers, he said.
"A curbside program can work, if done correctly," said Toller, who said he might bid on the new contract. "It might work as a mandatory program, though. The economy was bleak when this started, and it's voluntary, so you're asking for people to pay for something they're already getting by just throwing the material away."
Mike Connors, the city's public works administrator, said he'll meet next week with WSI officials to determine how to compensate customers, most of whom paid a $33 annual charge at the beginning of the year.
He said that for years, people who recycle have gotten into the routine of taking materials to one of the city's 18 drop-off centers. In 2011, these centers collected 4,481 tons of materials — three times what WSI recycled.
"We expected so many more subscribers than actually occurred," Connors said. "I'd say it's that the community got so accustomed to a variety of other ways to recycle that this service just didn't catch on."
Council member Jeff Danner said he thinks this proves that there's no market for curbside recycling in St. Petersburg.
"The bottom line is, people won't support it," he said.
But council member Steve Kornell said he will push for a better curbside service that he hopes will be mandatory.
"Obviously, the business model didn't work," he said. "We need to go back to the drawing board. I'd like to see us do this ourselves. One thing we can't do is to continue to fill up that landfill."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org