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Counties burn recyclables after malfunction, pandemic shut down facility

Across Hillsborough and Pasco, solid waste officials say, nearly 20,000 tons of recyclables ended up in an incinerator.

While the pandemic has seen Tampa Bay households stacking garbage at higher-than-usual rates, solid waste officials said, a major recycling facility suffered a malfunction and building closure that left counties burning thousands of tons of recyclables.

From roughly March 18 to June 15, the Waste Connections facility in St. Petersburg did not process recycling, said Damian Ribar, the company’s division vice president for Florida. The operation is what’s called a materials recovery facility — where waste is sorted into reusable groupings like cardboard and plastics. Among Waste Connections’ biggest local contracts are Hillsborough and Pasco counties and the City of St. Petersburg, he said.

Related: The coronavirus has given us a new kind of plastic waste. Where does it go?

During the stoppage, Hillsborough’s solid waste department reported sending 15,650 tons of recyclables to a plant that burns trash to produce electricity. Pasco officials said the county also started moving recyclables to an incinerator, called a waste-to-energy facility, eventually burning about 1,714 tons since early April. Representatives for both counties said waste managers did not send recyclables to the landfill.

St. Petersburg secured an agreement to temporarily take recyclables to a different company so they could be broken down for reuse instead of burned, said assistant sanitation director Robert Turner. On March 23, the city announced it was suspending curbside recycling for a time because of an electrical issue with the processor.

Burning waste to produce electricity still allows municipalities to earn credit for recycling, according to Florida law, under a renewable energy provision. Ash is sometimes used as cover at landfills.

Waste-to-energy involves burning garbage to heat water and produce steam. The steam spins a turbine. Hillsborough says some of the electrical power goes to public facilities and some is sold to an energy cooperative. Typically, waste-to-energy deals with trash, not recyclables.

A letter sent to Pasco by a Waste Connections official outlines what happened. The company suffered repeated failures of electrical components and could not get a representative from the manufacturer to visit because it is based in New York, which was subject to coronavirus-related travel restrictions under an order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“The last thing we wanted to do was bring somebody from a hotspot and put them as potential exposure among our workforce, other vendors,” Ribar said. “I don’t think any of us ever contemplated fixing a routine problem with a pandemic going on.”

Of the waste, he said, “some of it was incinerated and some of it was landfilled.” He did not immediately know how much Waste Connections would have normally processed over that period.

On May 1, Ribar said, the business shut down its facilities in Florida over concerns about the coronavirus and ensuring employees could practice social distancing at work. At the time, he said, the company knew of one positive test among employees, not in St. Petersburg. He said Waste Connections operates a similar facility in Miami.

Waste Connections resumed work here the week of June 17. Ribar said employees are subject to temperature checks and are generally spaced apart.

A new problem cropped up, though, when Hillsborough announced last week that Waste Connections had suspended residential recycling pickups because of a driver shortage during the pandemic. County officials told residents they could drop off their recyclables at community collection sites.

Times staff writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.