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Pinellas County commissioners have been forced to lay off employees and reduce services, so it is understandably difficult for them to stomach the projected cost of a proposed new service: free countywide curbside recycling for residents. While commissioners do need to be cognizant of the cost - and take steps to manage it - there is an even bigger cost associated with not proceeding.

Pinellas County burns much of its garbage in its waste-to-energy plant, but the plant is expensive to operate and the ash generated by the incinerator has to be buried in the county landfill, along with all nonburnable garbage. The landfill will be full in a few decades, and with no more open land available, Pinellas will have to start a desperate search for a place outside the county to bury garbage. The cost of waste disposal surely will skyrocket then.

The arrival of that day will be hastened if Pinellas continues to throw away tons of plastic, glass, metal and paper that could be recycled. It makes sense to recycle, and the best way to encourage residents to do so is to provide convenient curbside pickup.

Most Pinellas cities already offer curbside pickup. But St. Petersburg, unincorporated Pinellas County, Madeira Beach and Redington Shores have lagged behind, so their residents have to drive to recycling drop-off centers. That wastes gas and discourages participation. In unincorporated Pinellas, residents deposit about 2,000 tons a year at drop-off centers. The county believes curbside recycling would push that figure to 45,000 tons - an indication of how much convenience matters.

Last year, county commissioners began talking about providing curbside recycling to everyone in the county. At the time, staff told commissioners the program could be operated for just over $7 million a year. That number later crept as high as $10 million. The annual cost would be paid from garbage tipping fees and selling electricity generated at the waste-to-energy plant.

But commissioners recently learned that the first-year cost of countywide curbside pickup could be more than $25 million because of start-up expenses, including 200,000 wheeled bins costing about $50 each. The estimate was an eye opener for county commissioners, who have not yet decided to implement the program. An advertisement for bids, which could solidify cost estimates, is being drafted for commission consideration.

Commissioners and the public need detailed cost breakdowns and, given the state of the economy, some alternatives to consider. Are smaller or cheaper bins an option, especially if pickup is weekly? Could the bins' cost be spread over several years? Should the program be phased to lower the cost in the first couple of years?

It is costly to taxpayers and the environment to continue to bury and burn garbage that could be cleaned, recycled and used again. While commissioners need to get a handle on the costs, they should continue to pursue countywide curbside recycling.