ST. PETERSBURG — Good news for the city's voluntary curbside recycling program: It was expanded on Thursday so that some customers will qualify for a garbage pickup discount if they sign up for recycling.
Bad news for the program: That still may not be enough to save it.
"It's going to be an uphill battle," said Ian Boyle, the local manager for Waste Services of Florida Inc., which debuted the $2.75-a-month, once-a-week pickup service in 2010.
WSI had hoped to have 24,000 customers by now. Instead, the company has fewer than 8,000 — not enough to justify WSI renewing its contract when it expires in October.
To move those numbers up, the council voted unanimously Thursday to allow single-family homes occupied by two people on lots of 8,500 square feet or less to go down to once-a-week trash pickup. Those who choose to switch from two-day pickup — and sign up for recycling — will save $4.25 per month, said public works administrator Mike Connors.
The incentive should help, Boyle said, but neither he nor Connors said they knew how many people would now qualify. With a coordinated effort to encourage neighborhood groups to promote the program, as well as stepped-up marketing efforts, Boyle said he's optimistic that more people will sign up.
Previous efforts at community outreach barely made a difference, Boyle said. Company representatives have set up booths at events, put out newsletters, and gone door-to-door.
"It just didn't move the needle," Boyle said.
It won't be until this summer, when WSI analyzes the numbers, that Boyle can evaluate whether Thursday's vote helped.
"What the city did just now is remove one of the roadblocks we're facing," he said. "But there are others."
Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, one of four council members who don't subscribe to WSI's curbside service, is an example of one of the hurdles the company faces.
"I'm not part of the program because I don't have to be part of the program, because I take my recyclables to the drop off center," Curran said.
Her view is a good illustration of why curbside recycling might fail in a city that likes to think of itself as green.
Curran uses one of the city's 18 drop-off centers, and says she won't change. Bill Dudley says he recycles at a nearby church, one of 180 nonprofits that recycle citywide. Karl Nurse said he subscribes to a competing curbside service and won't switch to WSI until his contract expires in October because to do so would be wasteful.
Combined, these alternatives recycled 4,481 tons of materials in 2011 — more than three times what WSI recycled last year.
St. Petersburg's recycling is so fractured with competing systems — some of which also are supported by the city — that establishing a viable curbside service will require thousands of residents to break a green routine they've had for years, Connors said.
"The habitual drop-off guy hasn't stopped taking his recyclables to the drop-off center," Connors said.
Greg Foster, who launched the city's first curbside recycling program years ago, was gloomy about the chances that WSI could succeed with voluntary subscriptions.
"You have to make it mandatory," Foster said. "That's the only way you can get people to do it."
Boyle said mandatory service would help, and pointed out that St. Petersburg is the only major city in the Tampa Bay area that doesn't have mandatory curbside service.
"Eventually, if they want to see the numbers increase to where they want them, they'll have to consider going mandatory," Boyle said.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.