ST. PETERSBURG — In what he concedes is a policy shift, Mayor Rick Baker said Wednesday that he will support a county proposal to bring curbside recycling to the city.
A longtime opponent of curbside recycling, Baker said Pinellas County removed one of his two major objections — the cost — by offering to pay for it. He said his staff will tackle his other objection — increased pollution from trucks picking up recyclable materials.
"We all want the same things for the environment," Baker said. "The county solved the money problem, and I'm becoming more convinced that there are ways of addressing these greenhouse issues."
When curbside recycling will start remains undecided. The county, which favors weekly collection, wants to have a program in place within a year.
Baker said he supports monthly curbside collection but could embrace weekly collections if his environmental concerns are addressed.
Possible solutions include planting trees to offset carbon emissions and buying trucks powered by natural gas, Baker said.
County officials applauded Baker's announcement. "It is very desirable to have them go along," said Andy Fairbanks, the county's Waste Reduction Program supervisor. "If Mayor Baker wants to plant trees in addition, that's great."
City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett called the mayor's decision "very exciting.'' "What this means is curbside recycling in one form or another is going to happen," Bennett said.
The only areas in Pinellas without curbside recycling now are St. Petersburg, Madeira Beach and unincorporated areas. Madeira Beach supports the county's proposal.
The county proposes spending $7.2-million in annual surplus sanitation revenue to expand curbside recycling countywide. The 21 cities that now provide the service would be reimbursed.
The county contends curbside recycling is a greener alternative to collection centers. An estimated 4.8-million gallons of gas would be saved if 440 tons of recyclable material were picked up curbside instead of at collection centers, the county estimates. Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 20,900 metric tons, the equivalent of removing 16,600 passenger cars from the road.
Baker supports a compromise proposed by council member Karl Nurse calling for seasonal weekly yard-waste collection and monthly curbside collection of other recyclables.
The county has not said whether it will pay for yard waste recycling, but Baker will push for it. "I'm just going to negotiate for the best deal. It's the county's decision," Baker said.
St. Petersburg is the largest city in Florida without curbside collection, a fact that has shadowed Baker since he took office in 2001.
In recent years, he worked to build a reputation as a pragmatic, statewide leader on green issues. Baker is chairman of the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida and vice chairman of Gov. Charlie Crist's climate change team. And St. Petersburg was designated the first "Green City" by the Florida Green Building Coalition last year.
But as recently as two weeks ago, a sanitation supervisor explained the county's proposal to an aide to the mayor and wrote: "the mayor … is against this.''
And Baker still questions the environmental benefits of curbside collection. Although he concedes he cannot prove it, Baker says curbside recycling is more polluting than collection centers because it requires more trucks.
"I don't know how you would measure that," he said. "On the other hand, could you really measure what recycling is doing to make the Earth better?"
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]