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County must get a grip on poor recycling rate

The convoluted numbers surrounding Pasco's trash recycling are further evidence the county needs to accelerate its work and renew its commitment to keep unnecessary rubbish from its overcapacity incinerator.

As Times staff writer Bridget Hall Grumet detailed recently, a state report released in December showed Pasco County recycled 29 percent of its waste in 2002, up from 16 percent in 2001. The numbers are important because state law dictates counties recycle 30 percent of their waste before they can expand or build new trash-burning plants.

Pasco is expected to seek such permission because its incinerator in Shady Hills reached capacity last year, seven years ahead of projections. A couple of hundred tons of waste are buried at an adjacent landfill daily because the plant can't handle the trash flow. The December report seemed to indicate Pasco could hit the state recycling mandate with minimal effort and be allowed to apply for the state permits to expand its trash-burning capacity.

Just one problem. The recycling number is inaccurate.

After inquiries by the Times, the Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged it had incorrectly credited to Pasco County some waste generated elsewhere and recycled by PAW Materials. That company handles construction and demolition debris and said business is booming because of Pasco's hot housing market. The state said it will recalculate Pasco's recycling rate using corrected data.

The number is expected to drop, and a legislative end-run around the state's 30 percent mandate shouldn't be considered until the county can document improved recycling efforts.

Of more concern than the report's undetected gaffe are the dismal numbers of some traditional recycling materials. Recycling of household glass and aluminum declined between 2001 and 2002, and newspapers increased only slightly. State statistics, however, show significant gains in recycled plastic bottles and metal cans.

Pasco businesses recycle nearly a quarter of their refuse, but residents of single-family homes and apartments recycle a measly 12 percent. It's why Pasco's recycling rate dwindled from 28 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 2001.

New residents are unfamiliar with Pasco County's recycling program, in which trash haulers twice a month collect glass and plastic containers and aluminum and metal cans placed at curbside in blue bags. The county shares the blame. Its lack of commitment was indicated by its decision not to promote recycling as state grant money disappeared. Why it takes a state handout to emphasize the environmental benefits of recycling escapes us.

County administrator John Gallagher admits that was a mistake, and the county is preparing a pilot program in a single neighborhood to determine whether a bin system is more effective than the current effort.

The pilot program could help increase recycling because of convenience and new transplants' familiarity with similar programs in the North. The bins will allow people to put newspapers at the curb instead of driving them to a recycling center. It also eliminates the need for residents to locate and purchase blue bags.

Reusing glass, plastics and newspaper protects natural resources and saves landfill and incinerator space for materials that should be burned and buried.

All of the long-term solutions to the county's garbage disposal problem are costly. Doing nothing translates into $168-million in extra landfill costs over the next 20 years, according to a consultant's report. Increasing the burning capacity at the incinerator carries a price tag ranging from $229-million to $353-million.

As stated here previously, a renewed commitment to residential recycling won't delay the need for a new incinerator, but it will demonstrate Pasco is serious about aiding the environment.