1. Opinion

Editorial: A curbside recycling plan for St. Pete, at last

Published Oct. 9, 2014

The wait for curbside recycling in St. Petersburg has seemed interminable, but a week ago the City Council okayed getting a loan to buy equipment and next month a fleet of recycling trucks will be ordered. By next summer, St. Petersburg residents finally should have access to the sort of easy recycling that much smaller Pinellas cities have long enjoyed. Not only does the city now have a definitive plan and timetable, it is also exploring some creative incentives to encourage reluctant recyclers to step up their game.

Public Works Director Mike Connors sketched out the details during the last City Council meeting. Every home will get a blue, 95-gallon rolling cart for recyclables. The blue carts will be picked up at the curb once every other week by city workers driving trucks with automated lifts. In neighborhoods where the streets are unusually narrow, the city will consider doing alley pickup of recycling carts and is buying a rear-loading truck for that purpose.

Every household will be charged a recycling fee, whether they ever use their blue cart or not. Next month the City Council will conduct a public hearing on the staff's proposed monthly fee of $2.95.

Apartment and condo dwellers will not be a part of the new program, since their complexes typically make their own recycling arrangements.

Though residents who have been clamoring for curbside recycling for years may be eager to get started, the program won't begin until July. The 80,000 blue carts and the seven automated trucks will be ordered in November, but won't arrive for six months. It will take another month to assemble and deliver the carts to homes and do driver training on the trucks.

Each cart will have an imbedded computer chip that will be automatically scanned when the cart is emptied so the city can compile data on participation rates. That data also can be used if the city adopts a creative incentive plan it is considering to promote participation: points that residents could accumulate for recycling and exchange for discounts at local businesses. The city staff will ask the council to approve hiring a consultant to design an education and outreach program to answer questions, head off problems and boost participation.

A robust incentive program likely will be necessary if the city is going to reach the lofty recycling goals it has set. St. Petersburg residents who want curbside recycling currently must contract with a private provider. Only 10 percent of households subscribe to that weekly service, and the set-out rate is only 8 percent. City officials hope to boost both those numbers to 100 percent over the next 10 years and boost the annual recycled tonnage from the current 2,328 to 60,000.

It is vital for the city to grow its participation in recycling. The city must pay a fee for every ton of regular garbage it dumps at the county landfill off Interstate 275. Once that landfill is full, Pinellas residents will face sharply higher costs for trucking garbage out of the county to some distant landfill. It isn't just good financial and environmental policy to use recycling to reduce the stream of garbage, state law will require communities to meet increasingly stringent waste reductions over time.

There was discussion at the council meeting about whether curbside recycling should be provided every week instead of every other week. City officials feel every other week will be sufficient for now as residents develop the recycling habit, but they hope that eventually, residents will be producing so little garbage that the current twice-weekly garbage pickup can be reduced to once a week and recycling pickup increased to weekly if necessary.

For years St. Petersburg officials declined to start curbside service. But residents' constant lobbying, and the election of a more progressive mayor and City Council, finally will give them a convenient way to demonstrate their stewardship of the environment.