Recycling will work if it's made mandatory

Published May 6, 2012

Less than two years after moving from the dark ages to finally embrace curbside recycling, St. Petersburg is on the brink of retreat. A voluntary curbside program run by a private operator has failed to win enough subscribers, prompting some in City Hall to pronounce it just won't work in Florida's fourth-largest city. But that is the wrong conclusion. The real lesson here for city leaders should be that half-measures don't work. The city should embrace mandatory, curbside recycling like that found in other cities in Florida and across the nation to finally move St. Petersburg to a greener and more efficient future.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Michael Van Sickler recently reported, Waste Services of Florida Inc. has told City Hall it does not have enough paying subscribers (8,000) to justify renewing its contract with the city this fall. The company had hoped to sign up three times as many households willing to pay $33 a year for the convenience of curbside recycling. But here is a more telling statistic: The city's 16 dropoff centers — which residents, businesses and nonresidents pay nothing to use — collected nearly 3,400 tons of refuge, twice the amount that WSI did. It's not that St. Petersburg residents won't recycle; it's just that the voluntary recyclers are split between competing systems. And greater recycling collection, along with true economies of scale, won't be seen until the city integrates more convenient curbside service into waste services.

Elsewhere in Tampa Bay, it isn't this hard. Residents have convenient choices when disposing of trash at the curbside, rubbish or recycling, and most often it is factored into the monthly municipal utility charges. For years, St. Petersburg's discussion was stymied by former Mayor Rick Baker, who questioned its cost effectiveness and the pollution generated by collection trucks.

Mayor Bill Foster deserves credit for finally moving St. Petersburg forward, albeit in half-steps. He signed the contract with WSI in 2010 that provided a once-a-week service recycling newspaper, cardboard, aluminum cans, plastic and glass using a single 18-gallon bin for a modest price. And Foster indicated last week he would try to find another private provider to keep the service going. That's more enlightened than the musings from council member Jeff Danner, who sounds ready to retreat altogether.

But council member Steve Kornell has it right. The city's entire waste management service should be re-examined to see how it might be realigned to support mandatory curbside recycling, which should also allow the closing of some — if not most — of the city's dropoff centers. And it should, over time, reduce the city's waste disposal costs.

Recycling is not the hippy activist cause critics like to claim. It is a proven method to collect valued commodities for a higher use, prolong the life of landfills and protect natural resources. It's also the policy of the state, where the Republican-led Legislature has voted twice since 2008 to call for communities to recycle at least 75 percent of their solid waste by 2020. That's eight years away. It's time for the St. Petersburg to get on board.