Clearwater residents may get refunds for 6 months the city failed to recycle

One option is a full refund of $20.38 for each customer, with the $1.12 million cost to come from solid waste reserves.
A look at the Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility, where recycled materials from Clearwater residents were processed for six months rather than being taken to the Waste Management facility in Ybor City.
A look at the Pinellas County Resource Recovery Facility, where recycled materials from Clearwater residents were processed for six months rather than being taken to the Waste Management facility in Ybor City. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]
Published Jan. 30|Updated Jan. 30

CLEARWATER — Citing the need to regain public trust, the City Council is considering issuing refunds to residents for the six months that officials failed to recycle any materials collected from homes.

The discussion at a work session Monday followed the discovery in early January that, since July, Clearwater’s Solid Waste and Recycling Department had picked up recyclables from curbsides but failed to deliver them to Waste Management in Ybor City for processing. Instead, recyclables were sent with regular refuse to the Pinellas County Solid Waste Disposal Complex, where about 90% of materials are processed into electricity and the rest goes to the landfill.

Issuing six-month refunds would work out to $20.38 per customer, totaling $1.12 million covered by the Solid Waste and Recycling reserve fund, according to Chief Innovation Officer Micah Maxwell.

But because the city still paid Pinellas County to take its recyclables at the solid waste complex, the council is also considering another option: to refund residents just the difference between the recycling and solid waste fees over the six months, which would total $4.86 per customer.

While a majority of council members favored issuing full six-month refunds, they are expected to vote on the issue during the regular meeting Thursday.

“I’m glad that we owned it and we’ve apologized, but now we have to make it right,” council member Lina Teixeira said.

Whichever refund option the council chooses, the city’s failure to recycle for six months has opened a larger discussion about long-term reforms in the solid waste department as issues with contamination and equipment linger.

Recycling was not occurring largely because the city’s two tractor-trailers used to transport the materials from Clearwater’s solid waste facility to the Waste Management plant were broken for most of the six-month period, according to Maxwell.

No solid waste official informed city administration of the problem, so the city could not alert residents, Maxwell said. Longtime director Earl Gloster retired in November, before city administration discovered the problem. Assistant Director Bryant Johnson resigned on Jan. 9, days after Interim City Manager Jennifer Poirrier discovered the breach on Jan. 6.

Although recycling resumed after that, Maxwell said the city has since been able to recycle only about one-third of the weekly loads since due to contamination of the materials and because one of the two trailers is out of commission again due to a blown cylinder.

The solid waste department has $40 million in reserves, about $25 million above the required minimum, according to finance director Jay Ravins.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said, with such healthy reserves, the department “ought to buy some functioning trucks that aren’t down all the time.” He also said the city should deploy a campaign to educate residents about how to avoid contamination in recycling, which is contributing to the low recycling rate.

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When items are wet, contaminated with food, or mixed with incompatible items like plastic bags or yard waste, recyclables cannot be processed.

Following the discovery of the breach, Maxwell took over as interim solid waste director. Poirrier also appointed two new assistant directors: Peter Bardou to lead general services and Kervin St. Aimie to lead the solid waste division.

Maxwell said the city also has to deal with capacity issues that arise at the processing plant in Ybor City. According to emails between Clearwater and Waste Management officials from early 2022, the Ybor plant was unable to accept more than one load from Clearwater a day due to the lack of room.

About four recycling processors service cities in Pinellas County. The county currently has a solicitation out for a countywide recycling processing vendor, and bids are due next week.

Maxwell said the city will evaluate all options, including the possibility of using a processor closer to Clearwater.