ST. PETERSBURG — When he took office this year, Mayor Rick Kriseman wasted no time trying to jump-start the city's sputtering effort at universal curbside recycling.
His administration unveiled a plan in February to get recycling bins to all of St. Petersburg's 76,000 households, not just those who pay a special fee for it now.
But almost six months later, the endeavor is bogged down and essentially on pause.
The city's recent attempt to find a contractor that would process its recyclables garnered no bidders, a rarity. And the mayor is still studying whether it's possible to do part of the job in-house.
"The good news is we all want to do this, and do it economically," said council member Karl Nurse. "The challenge is that clearly it's a learning curve trying to figure out how to do that."
St. Petersburg has long touted its status as a "Green City" but has been notoriously late to offer recycling. It's the only large city in Florida that still does not offer universal curbside recycling.
Kriseman campaigned on changing that.
On Friday, he sounded hopeful. He told the Tampa Bay Times he'd like to see recycling bins in front of every home "before summer is over."
But a few key hurdles remain.
For years, the city has said it would be too expensive to take on recycling itself, and so it made plans to privatize the work.
Union officials and sanitation workers disputed that, and last month, Kriseman directed his staff to look into the possibility of using the city workers to pick up the recyclables.
"We're leaning heavily in that direction," Kriseman said Friday.
A private company would still be contracted to process the materials.
Right now, he is considering two proposals for in-house collection.
Both would require the city to buy six to seven new trucks (at about $230,000 each) for its fleet and hire at least that many drivers (at about $60,000 each) to operate them, said Public Works administrator Mike Connors.
But the first option would have the city delay the hiring of those extra drivers for about six months. Instead, Connors said, the city would pay its existing force of sanitation drivers overtime to accommodate for the extra work.
The second option would be to start the collection whenever the city hired the new drivers, he said.
"It's pennies difference between the two options," Connors said. "That first option allows us to implement much quicker though."
Both options would have pickup service every other week, instead of the weekly service originally envisioned a few months ago. The city also would save money by purchasing containers that are $60 a piece instead of the $90 ones staff had been eyeing, Connors said.
Residents would pay $3 a month for the service, which is what the administration proposed earlier this year.
But Connors said that before the city can start picking up recyclables, it needs to have a deal in place for where it will take them. That's why the city put out a request for proposals last month for the processing portion of the recycling effort.
Officials opened the bid July 10 — and had no responses.
Kriseman said he was surprised.
"It's very rare we go out for solicitation and get no bids," said purchasing director Louis Moore. "We're going to have to find out why … Then we're going to have to go back to ground zero."
One issue, Connors said, is the level of contamination — the percentage of nonrecyclable material — the city projected in its bid. Those are things like a greasy pizza box or certain plastics that may end up in people's bins.
Originally, city officials assumed a 3 percent contamination rate. After getting information from Hillsborough County, officials here changed that to 17 percent for the proposal request.
That still may be too low in St. Petersburg's case, Connors said.
"What we're finding is it varies from city to city," he said. "The longer the city has been providing the service, the lower the contamination rate."
The contamination rate is important to both the city and the companies, because once the recycling is sorted, the materials are sold and the revenue shared. The higher the level of contamination, the more that eats into any profit.
In letters to the city, Waste Management of Florida and Progressive Waste Solutions also laid out other concerns they had about St. Petersburg's proposal.
Among them were the city's offer of a three-year contract. That may be too short, Nurse said.
"Anytime you have almost nobody bidding, you're going to pay more money," he said.
Connors said city staff plans to meet with both companies soon, perhaps as early as this week, to figure out whether there is anything St. Petersburg can change in its proposal to make it attractive to bidders.
In the meantime, Nurse said he hopes St. Petersburg leans on its neighboring cities to figure out the best way to make the transition to full curbside recycling.
"Surrounding folks have found ways to do this at a price where it seems manageable," Nurse said. "We don't need to reinvent this."
Contact Kameel Stanley at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.