CLEARWATER — Residents will not have to pay a recycling charge on their city sanitation bills for six months to make up for a major lapse in the service discovered earlier this year.
The credits are set to begin on Oct. 1. They will total $20.28 for single-family customers and cost the city $1.1 million.
The city will also refund $14,120 to Belleair and $62,925 to Safety Harbor. Both municipalities used to hire Clearwater to handle their recycling but ended their contracts after revelations that recycling was collected but never sent to be processed.
The City Council unanimously approved the credits Thursday, saying they are another way to rebuild trust. The city has also revamped its solid waste department and launched an online dashboard showing the public that recycling operations are restored.
The credits, however, do not reimburse residents for the entire period of recycling problems, which stretched at least four years — not six months.
On Jan. 6, after an employee tip, City Manager Jennifer Poirrier discovered that the solid waste department had sent no recycling to its processor for six months. Poirrier found a letter that the waste management company WM sent to the city in November 2022, stating it was ending its contract because Clearwater had stopped delivering recyclables to the Ybor City facility in July 2022.
For those six months, the solid waste department picked up the recycling that residents left at the curbs but took it to the Pinellas County Waste-to-Energy Plant with the regular garbage.
Assistant solid waste director Bryant Johnson resigned in lieu of termination, in part because he had assured Poirrier the city was recycling when she asked weeks before finding the letter, the city manager said. Longtime director Earl Gloster retired in November 2022, shortly before Poirrier discovered the breach.
But records show the city was recycling minuscule amounts for more than four years.
Now that the city is sending all of residents’ recycling to its processor, a typical monthly load like last month amounted to 688 tons. But beginning in late 2018, the tonnage that Clearwater was sending to WM was bafflingly low and fluctuated greatly.
In March 2019, for example, the city sent 17 tons of recycling to the processor and 71 tons the following month. In 2021, no month exceeded 191 tons. In most months from 2019 through 2022, Clearwater’s total deliveries to WM were less than what the city had collected from just Belleair and Safety Harbor alone.
Assistant City Manager Daniel Slaughter said staff did not recommend credits for the years prior to July 2022 because the city was still recycling some material during that time. The credits approved Thursday are for the six months where no recycling occurred.
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Slaughter also said there were a variety of reasons for the low recycling rates stretching to 2018, like the processor limiting the amount that could be delivered on a given day, contamination that forced loads to be diverted to the waste to energy plant, and the impact of the pandemic.
“The inability to determine which customer material was recycled and which was not (prior to July 2022), limits the ability to determine who would be considered for a credit and who would not,” Slaughter said.
On Thursday, City Council member David Allbritton placed some blame on problems in the industry, like the impact from China’s 2019 decision to stop buying recycling from other countries. However, Clearwater was the only city in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties that could not deliver all of its materials to its processor.
Part of the problem was that Clearwater was on a month-to-month contract with WM since 2017 while other municipalities secured long-term agreements. WM director of communications Dawn McCormick previously told the Tampa Bay Times that Clearwater’s monthly arrangement created uncertainty because the processor relies on consistent deliveries and estimates included in long-term contracts so the facility can be ready with staff and space on the floor where recyclables are dropped off.
After Poirrier discovered the breach in January, the city arranged a short-term agreement for WM to accept its recycling again. When it switched to Waste Connections in St. Petersburg in March, the city confirmed that 100% of residents’ recycling was being sent to the processor.
On Thursday, the Council also approved a renegotiated one-year contract with Waste Connections that lowered the amount the city pays to drop off each ton and allows the city to get some money back through revenue sharing.
“This mistake will not happen again,” Poirrier said. “It was humiliating to uncover but the work that we have done to bring it to where it is today is a testament to the leadership that is out there.”