ST. PETERSBURG — Last March, when city officials were prepping City Council members on the debut of the long-awaited recycling program, Darden Rice asked how many of the city's 81,000 or so households were expected to participate.
After the first year, city officials said, they hoped to boost participation by 10 percent or 800 more households than the 8,000 that already voluntarily recycled with a private company.
"I think we can do a little bit better," Rice deadpanned.
Turns out, she was right. In fact, the city did a lot better. In December, 50.4 percent of the city's households recycled.
"There was a lot of pent up demand. A lot of people wanted to recycle, but the city didn't offer them the opportunity," said Mike Dove, neighborhood affairs director, who took over the program a few months after its initially bumpy debut at the end of June.
The city hoped to recycle 9,800 tons in the first year. So far, it's on pace to top 12,000.
"We're headed in the right direction" Rice said. She said the smart chips in the recycling bins will help the city identify neighborhoods that aren't recycling as much and allow the city to figure out ways to boost participation.
And as Mayor Rick Kriseman mentioned in his State of the City speech last week, only 7 percent of the city's recyclables are considered contaminated by the processor, far below the projected rate of 20 percent.
That has saved the city money, but overall, the program hasn't generated much cash: about $63,000 in the first six months.
But the city has saved between $45,600 and $62,800 each month by avoiding tipping fees at the county landfill during that same period.
The city started alley pickups for 31,000 households this week. The initial refusal to do so probably helped fuel the demise of Mike Connors, former public works director. When Dove took over the fledgling program in August, he quickly reversed course, obtaining smaller trucks and trimming back growth in alleys.
What had been a simmering discontent with the city's policy during the summer turned into an applause line at Kriseman's speech when he asked the neighborhood association presidents in Kenwood and the Old Northeast to stand for their part in revamping the program.
Now, it's on to the second phase: larger apartment complexes and condos. Dove is working on a strategic plan to serve the 46,423 units at 903 sites around the city.
The city will gradually expand service to apartments or condo complexes with more than five units, probably starting this spring.
Dove hopes to have the details for the council's Public Service and Infrastructure Committee in March.
Rice said she has confidence in Dove, who she says has a "gifted skills set when it comes to working with the public."
That's important because the first phase demonstrates the perils of an unaware public.
"We've got to get the public engagement piece right," Rice said. "We've got to work with our citizens; they're equal stakeholders in this process. You might as well get it right the first time."
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Contact Charlie Frago or email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago on Twitter.