TAMPA — New bins on wheels that take all types of recyclables are turning residents of unincorporated Hillsborough County into environmentalists, and the county is seeing green in more ways than one as a result.
In the two months since the county rolled out the automated service, residential recycling is up 70 percent more than average past monthly totals, as measured by overall tonnage.
"I think we have to get several months under our belt before we call it a trend," said John Lyons, public works director for the county. "But things are looking good. We didn't predict it would get to this level this quickly."
Thanks to a new contract, the county is now getting a cut on what those bottles, cans and newspapers are being sold for in the recyclables market. That came out to $324,000 for October and $311,000 the next month.
County officials had predicted they would make some money, and the proceeds are one of many reasons they were able to lower rates slightly this year for collection. If the pace of recycling continues, the county's "profit" will be more than double what was projected.
Tampa officials say they, too, have seen an increase in recycling since the city began phasing in a similar service.
"We've seen an increasing amount in the percentage of participation and in tonnage quantity," said Daryl Stewart, administrative chief for the city's Department of Solid Waste and Environmental Program Management.
Both the city and county used to provide smallish, open-topped plastic box-like bins, asking people to separate paper products from glass, plastic bottles and cans.
In October, the county joined Tampa in providing larger bins with wheels and lids that are about the same size as the can provided for other household waste.
Now people can dump all their recyclables in one bin and simply roll it to the curb. And more garbage was added to what can be recycled — more plastics, more containers, more types of paper.
Mitch Kessler, whose Kessler Consulting assisted the county with its change in garbage service, said there is no reason the numbers can't improve. But it will take local government continuing to remind people how easy it is.
"I have clients that just stop communicating," Kessler said. "Every time you do a touch, the numbers go up. If you don't do a touch in five years, it's going to go down."
Unincorporated Hillsborough is served by three trash collection companies. Drivers for each haul the recycling to a transfer station. From there it is carried to a sorting and bundling plant in St. Petersburg operated by Progressive Waste Solutions, one of the county's haulers.
The increasing demand for recycled materials stems in part from advances in automation, especially in sorting equipment, that has lowered the cost of getting materials to market. In St. Petersburg, more of the recyclables end up on a conveyor belt, with bottles and cans dropping down chutes as paper and cardboard pass through other sorts of filters to their destination.
The separated items are then bundled or shipped loose to companies that take one type of paper product and turn it into another or convert plastic bottles to material that goes into carpet.
Each type of recyclable is sold like a commodity, and the prices can fluctuate wildly. In October, mixed paper bundles were fetching $52 a ton and aluminum was $1,400 a ton.
"A lot of it depends on the economy," said Steve Schweigart, division manager for Progressive Waste Solutions. "For instance, one of the biggest drivers of the demand for cardboard is how many cars are being manufactured."
Many of the parts that end up in a car are shipped in a box. Same thing happens when people are eating at restaurants more, Schweigart said. Suddenly cardboard and other containers that can be made from recyclable materials are in demand.
The county pays Progressive $50 off the top to accept the material. Progressive pays the county 96 percent of what it makes after that, based on an analysis of how much of each type of recyclable the county has historically collected. (A new analysis is planned after the new program has been going for six months.)
County Commissioner Al Higginbotham was one of the proponents of seeking new bids for waste hauling service in the county. Since the new program started, he said he has noticed that his own recycling bin is often more full than the can for his other household waste.
"I'm glad we are finally getting it and doing what's right," he said.