St. Petersburg's 3-year-old recycling program has reached an undesirable tipping point, with operating costs exceeding the income from selling the recyclable materials. The shift is driven by falling commodity prices and new policies in China that cut off an important market. But even in the red and even in a volatile market, the program remains a valuable public service that deserves continued commitment.
The city launched curbside recycling in mid-2015 after years of clamoring from residents. St. Petersburg had been behind most other cities its size in offering the service, and Mayor Rick Kriseman delivered on a campaign promise to make it a reality. It took several months to smooth out the kinks, including acquiring smaller trucks to accommodate alley pick-ups. The program is available only to single-family homes and some small apartment buildings, whose residents pay an extra $2.95 per month on their utility bills. And up until two months ago, the program paid for itself plus a little more.
Now, with China no longer accepting numerous types of waste products, St. Petersburg and most other municipalities are getting a lower return on selling their recyclables. Jeff Donnel, the city's recycling manager, expects that trend to continue. But even if the program costs money to run, it's important to consider the tradeoff. St. Petersburg has processed 37,000 tons of recyclables since 2015. Sending all those bottles, cans and plastic jugs to the county landfill or incinerator would have cost the city $37 per ton. That amounts to nearly $1.4 million in savings, not counting the dividend the program had been yielding. And of course, it's the environmentally responsible option.
The program's participation rate of 65 percent needs improvement — the heaviest participants tend to live in better-off neighborhoods, so many poor residents are helping pay for a program they don't use. The city should step up outreach efforts to encourage more residents to recycle. But expanding the program to apartment complexes and condo towers isn't feasible right now.
The private processing facility adjacent to I-275 is already overflowing and couldn't handle the increased volume from thousands of new customers. And with recycled items fetching such low prices, there's little incentive for other providers to add processing capacity. The frustration among residents in apartments who want convenient recycling is understandable, but the city simply can't accommodate that demand right now.
Becoming a more sustainable community is an important endeavor, and St. Petersburg is on the right track with a viable curbside recycling program among its most visible efforts. Rising costs and a squeeze on processing capacity are not reasons to kill the program or scale it back — but it shouldn't be expanded under these circumstances. The program is operating well in its current scope, saving the city money and keeping heaps of recyclable trash out of the landfill.