Donning hard hats, fluorescent orange vests and safety goggles, Largo's leaders plunged into a noisy world of conveyor belts, forklifts, catwalks, powerful magnets, shredders and balers. Gloved workers sorted through endless streams of crumpled newspapers, glass bottles and plastic bags.
Largo elected officials got their first look last week at a new St. Petersburg recycling plant that's processing more and more of Tampa Bay's recyclables.
The Progressive Waste Solutions plant along Interstate 275 just north of downtown St. Petersburg is handling single-stream recycling for Hillsborough County and an increasing number of Pinellas County cities, including South Pasadena, Kenneth City, most of the beach towns, unincorporated Palm Harbor and now Largo.
"This place is unbelievable," said Largo Commissioner Harriet Crozier, marveling at the speed of the sorters who were grabbing items off conveyor belts.
New wheeled carts for single-stream recyclables are being delivered to nearly 18,000 Largo households for a program that begins Feb. 3.
Officials hope it will encourage more households to recycle more items, which saves the city money in landfill fees — and of course keeps garbage from being buried in the earth. With single stream, people can put more kinds of recyclables into the same cart. An automated truck with one driver collects the recyclables, which get sorted at a separate site.
Clearwater, Dunedin, Oldsmar and Safety Harbor have also switched to single stream, although they have contracts with Progressive's competitors, such as Republic Services or Waste Management. St. Petersburg's new mayor hopes to institute universal curbside recycling.
Largo commissioners got an eyeful during Wednesday's tour of the Progressive recycling plant, which opened Oct. 1. The plant handled only paper and cardboard until Progressive upgraded the facility after buying it from ACC Recycling Corp.
Vice Mayor Woody Brown was baffled that people would put VHS tapes and old shoes into recycling bins. He was also amazed by the capacity of the plant, which is taking in about 400 tons of recyclables a day.
Commissioner Michael Smith recalled that very little got recycled in his youth.
Inside the cavernous plant, forklifts pushed around mounds of newspapers. Magnets pulled soda cans off conveyer belts. Machines bound up huge bales of crushed plastic bottles. The tinkling sound of empty beer bottles could be heard.
Largo has contracted with Progressive to take 3,000 tons of recyclables per year. It costs the city $37.50 per ton to dump trash in the Pinellas County landfill. In contrast, the city gets paid for its recyclables. The exact amount varies, because recyclables get resold to manufacturing plants like any other commodity.
"The more you recycle, the more we save, because we're not paying to get rid of it," said city recycling coordinator Marissa Segundo.
Right now Largo residents can recycle plastic bottles (Nos. 1 and 2), mixed paper, aluminum cans and flattened cardboard. Under the new program, they'll be able to recycle glass, more types of plastic, juice and milk cartons, aluminum foil and tin cans.
The wheeled recycling carts are outfitted with radio frequency identification tags to reduce loss or theft and to help the city collect information about recycling participation throughout Largo.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151.