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How Safety Harbor’s recycling challenge affects all of Pinellas County

"We need to have a regional solution.”
Pinellas County Solid Waste uses garbage as fuel by burning it in an incinerator. They call it Waste-to-Energy. The heat creates steam which runs turbines and generates electricity. The remaining ash is used as landfill cover. [STOCKWELL, TRACEE  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Pinellas County Solid Waste uses garbage as fuel by burning it in an incinerator. They call it Waste-to-Energy. The heat creates steam which runs turbines and generates electricity. The remaining ash is used as landfill cover. [STOCKWELL, TRACEE | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jan. 8
Updated Jan. 9

SAFETY HARBOR ― It sounds like the beginning of a humorless joke. But, as the economics of recycling become less and less favorable, an important question is being asked of governments all over Pinellas County.

When is a recycling program not really a recycling program?

In recent years, recycling has become prohibitively expensive for governments all over the country. That’s largely because in 2017, China, then the world’s largest importer of recycled plastic and paper, cracked down on contamination. Now Chinese recycling importers are only willing to accept batches with contamination rates of 0.5 percent or lower.

In Pinellas County, where governments sort recyclables for hundreds of thousands of residents, that percentage is essentially unattainable. Even a conscientious consumer who tosses a pizza box with some leftover cheese in her recycling bin is sending a contaminated batch to a local recycling plant.

Related: Related story: What actually happens to your recycling? We toured a Tampa Bay plant to find out.

Late last year, Safety Harbor came up with a way to cut down on recycling costs. Rather than sending curbside recyclables to a Clearwater facility for processing (cost: about $100 per ton), the City Commission agreed to send them to the county Waste-To-Energy plant (cost: about $40 per ton).

At the Clearwater facility, the city has no idea what proportion of its “recycled” materials actually wind up recycled, Mayor Joe Ayoub said. At the Waste-To-Energy plant, materials are incinerated, and in the process, the waste produces energy.

“We are indirectly recycling, either through energy generation or through reclamation of metals that go through the process,” city commissioner Cliff Merz said at a December commission workshop. “There is some recycling occurring.”

But in a letter to City Manager Matt Spoor dated Dec. 20, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton outlined a number of problems with Safety Harbor’s plan.

Related: Related story: Clearwater spent $1.6 million on six garbage cans. Will they work?

Safety Harbor’s move would set a bad precedent, Burton wrote. If every Pinellas government decided to make the same move, the Waste-To-Energy plant would be overwhelmed, and recyclables would be destined for the landfill.

Other cities are clearly feeling the increased costs of recycling. In September, the Clearwater City Council cited its expensive recycling program when it voted to raise its solid waste fees 3.75 percent annually from 2020 until 2024.

But Waste-To-Energy disposal is not the answer to the recycling problem, the county administrator wrote.

“The burning of single-stream collected curbside recyclables at the WTE Facility is not ‘recycling,’” Burton wrote. “The energy recovered is considered renewable, but not recycling.”

The ashes of incinerated recyclables would also have to go in the Pinellas landfill. So would any recyclables dropped at the Waste-To-Energy plant when the plant happens to be out of service.

Burton’s letter prompted a Dec. 30 meeting between officials with the city and county, including Burton and Spoor.

Related: Related story: Pinellas County raises trash rates

Burton said he offered to accelerate talks about potential long-term recycling solutions while urging Safety Harbor to back off its plan to send curbside recyclables to the Waste-To-Energy plant. (Safety Harbor’s proposal also included offering drop-off recycling locations for residents. Those containers would have been taken to recycling plants.)

“My point to Safety Harbor was, I understand your particular issue. Other cities are paying the same way. But we need to have a regional solution,” Burton said.

That solution could include expanding the capacity of the Waste-To-Energy facility; building a recycling material recovery facility in Pinellas County; encouraging businesses to accept recycled materials — or a combination of those or other ideas, Burton said.

Monday night, Safety Harbor reversed its decision. By a 4-1 vote, the City Commission passed a series of annual 6 percent sanitation rate increases while agreeing to continue its existing recycling program.

But even as they voted to do so, with only Merz in opposition, some on the City Commission urged the county to act on recycling sooner rather than later.

“There needs to be some kind of pressure put on the county to take some action,” commissioner Carlos Diaz said.

If you are a Pinellas County resident with questions about what you can recycle, check out this resource.

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