ST. PETERSBURG — Environmentalists battled for years to bring curbside recycling to St. Petersburg. After countless stops and starts, the city finally struck a deal two years ago that was met with much celebration.
"It was like a veil had been lifted and all the harps came in and played this angelic music," said Ray Wunderlich III, a staunch recycling advocate. "It was wonderfully wonderful."
More than 4,000 residents signed up for the voluntary service in the first month — its success seemingly guaranteed.
Yet the much heralded service is now in jeopardy. Despite the initial public clamor, demand has lagged far below expectations.
Only 7,249 out of 76,290 homes have agreed to the $2.75-a-month service, far below the 24,000 customers Waste Services of Florida Inc. expected.
"Out of the gate, it went very well," said Ian Boyle, a manager with Clearwater-based Waste Services. "After that, it petered out. For whatever reason, we've hit a wall and can't get over it."
Boyle said he can't turn a profit at such low participation levels. If he doesn't get more subscriptions, he won't seek to renew his contract when it expires in October.
The flat numbers come as a surprise for St. Petersburg officials who vowed the city could support curbside recycling. In his first few weeks on the job, Mayor Bill Foster pushed for the program after Pinellas County officials failed to deliver countywide curbside service. St. Petersburg was the last of 24 Pinellas cities to offer curbside recycling.
Now, even unincorporated parts of Pinellas boast higher participation rates. Nine haulers who offer the service to 160,000 county homes report participation at about 30 percent, said Bob Hauser, the county's director of solid waste.
St. Petersburg lags behind at 9.5 percent.
Why does a city with such a green reputation stumble on curbside recycling?
"That's a good question," Wunderlich said. "Somewhere there's a disconnect."
Foster said he thought that with all the media attention from the program's debut, signing customers wouldn't be a problem.
"In a way, I thought it would sell itself," Foster said. "What's not to love about it?"
Foster now says the program needs a bigger marketing push. In addition to promoting it more often in city utility bills, at the Saturday Morning Market and with neighborhood groups, Foster is asking the City Council on Thursday to approve an expansion of the program that would give customers a discount on garbage pickup.
If approved, single-family homes occupied by two people on lots of 8,500 square feet or less would qualify for once-a-week trash pickup. Those who choose to switch from two-day pickup — and agree to sign up for recycling — will save $4.25 off their total monthly bill, said public works administrator Mike Connors.
"Hopefully, this will increase the number of people who subscribe to curbside recycling," Connors said.
This time around, Wunderlich isn't leaving it up to the city.
"We were so enthusiastic about it," Wunderlich said. "There was so much fanfare. But then, it went away. People stopped talking about it. As environmental leaders, we were like, 'Oh, we have it. Let's move on.' "
He and Tim Martin, a representative with the Council on Neighborhood Associations, have sent emails to neighbors urging them to sign up others.
"If we don't use this service, we lose this service!" Martin wrote. "We begged for curbside and our elected officials need to hear that we appreciate the effort and want to use it."
Martin said he's optimistic that they can rally enough support.
"People don't know it's available," Martin said. "We need to get the word out."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]