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Recycling bane: inconvenience

Moving to Palm Harbor or East Lake can make even strong believers in recycling decide to throw it all away.

In those unincorporated areas, there is no city government to arrange for curbside pickup of recyclables. And many North Pinellas residents find the four drop-off recycling stations provided by the county too inconvenient or hard to find.

"I don't recycle, I'm ashamed to say," said Fran Donadio, 45, of the Beacon Groves subdivision in Palm Harbor. "I would drop it off if it was on the way."

Recycling is easier for residents of cities such as Tarpon Springs, Oldsmar and Clearwater, which have curbside recycling programs where crews pick up residents' cans, bottles and newspapers. Residents do not even have to sort the materials.

Dunedin, which has a smaller population than unincorporated North Pinellas, has five drop-off stations.

Two of the three stations in Palm Harbor are nearly in Dunedin. The other is at the county sewage treatment plant on Alt. U.S. 19. There are no recycling stations in the heart of Palm Harbor.

East Lake has just one drop-off station, on Sandy Point Road off East Lake Road. The station is difficult to spot.

None of the stations accept aluminum cans.

"In Europe they have these huge containers you put everything in, but you don't have those here," Bernard Benet said while getting gas at a store on East Lake Road and explaining why he does not recycle.

In fact, Benet was standing less than 250 yards from the county drop-off station on Sandy Point Road, a side street next to John Chesnut Park.

Benet was surprised to learn it was there. The 48-year-old has lived in the Crescent Oaks subdivision about 10 years since moving here from Colorado, but, he said, the station was so out of the way that he had never noticed it.

"You've got to have it in a place that's easy to get to," such as a shopping center or even a gas station, he said.

Some people, such as Helen Murray, 73, of Deer Hollow at East Lake, use the existing stations. The East Lake station is about 3 miles from her house and often requires a special trip, but it is worthwhile anyway, she said.

"I think I'm doing something for my country, kind of a patriotic thing. I recycle the milk cartons, the plastic soda bottles, the clear glass," she said. "I try to store them up and go about twice a month."

A national educational blitz about recycling in the early 1990s convinced many that recycling is a good idea, so people believe in it and want to do it, said Rebecca Stone, Pinellas County's recycling coordinator.

Although the idea of turning trash into something valuable again is appealing, it costs more to run a consumer recycling program than the materials can be sold for.

A curbside program for unincorporated areas does not make economic sense, Stone said. The programs are relatively expensive, costing $3 or $4 per house monthly.

Cities typically negotiate recycling service into a contract with the same company that collects its garbage. They require residents to have and pay for both services. Many residents recycle because it is handy, and others do it because they have to pay for the service whether they use it or not.

"The challenge is in our unincorporated area," such as East Lake and Palm Harbor, Stone said. "Pinellas County does not have mandatory garbage collection. It is one of the only remaining, truly free-enterprise garbage collection markets."

As a result, at least four companies operate in the unincorporated area, often serving different residents in the same neighborhoods. Some residents do not even sign up for trash pickup, instead choosing to dump their trash illegally or take it to the trash bin at their workplace, she said.

Voluntary curbside programs make little sense for the companies because the routes would be too spread out.

So residents outside a city have to depend on the drop stations. The county wants to add a few, but not too many, because it must pay $545 per station monthly to have the materials picked up.

"We do have a budget," Stone said. "The drop-off centers are fairly expensive to operate right now."

The county no longer collects the most profitable recyclable material, aluminum cans.

"We don't collect aluminum because of the problems with people going to the drop-off center and stealing it," Stone said. Instead, the county depends on civic groups collecting aluminum as a fund-raiser. "There are lots of recyclers where people can take it and get money for it."

Despite the added expense, the county would be willing to add a couple of stations but cannot find anywhere good to put them, Stone said. All the existing stations were placed on county property because that is easier for the county, she said.

"We have had a really hard time in north county finding a government building or finding a place where we can place a drop-off center," she said.

Nick Conrad, 38, of Cypress Green subdivision in Palm Harbor, said he would rather have bins at the Winn-Dixie or Publix supermarkets on U.S. 19 than at a sewage treatment plant, a retention pond or outside a county office complex. Putting the bins at shopping centers would save people a car trip.

"A lot more people would recycle if they did that," he said.

Reaching agreements with private businesses takes about six months, which Stone said is a lot of trouble.

"We've got to comply with zoning regulations," she said. "If it's private property, we have to have an agreement with the property owner so that they don't get sued and we don't get sued."

Even so, she said she would talk to any business owner willing to let the county establish a station in a high-traffic part of Palm Harbor.

Faith Labez, 42, said that she has been prevented from recycling because she does not run across drop-off stations in her daily routine since moving to Stonegate Apartments in Palm Harbor about eight months ago.

She moved here from Hawaii, where she recycled because the government provided drop-off bins at all public schools.

"You just leave it when you drop off the kids," she said. "It was part of the everyday routine for people. Maybe it would work here."

In the meantime, bottles, cans and newspapers just go into the trash bin at her complex, she said.

"There's a lot of recycling stuff being wasted every day," Labez said.

_ Bryan Gilmer covers Tarpon Springs and can be reached by e-mail at gilmersptimes.com or by phone at (813) 445-4182.

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