Is low Resident EDUCATION to Blame?
Tampa-St Petersburg– 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? Some feel that The city should embrace 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.
More than 4,000 residents signed up for the voluntary service in the first month — its success seemingly guaranteed.Yet the much heralded service is now in jeopardy. Despite the initial public clamor, demand has lagged far below expectations.Only 7,249 out of 76,290 homes have agreed to the $2.75-a-month service, far below the 24,000 customers Waste Services of Florida Inc. expected.
“Out of the gate, it went very well,” said Ian Boyle, a manager with Clearwater-based Waste Services. “After that, it petered out. For whatever reason, we’ve hit a wall and can’t get over it.”Boyle said he can’t turn a profit at such low participation levels. If he doesn’t get more subscriptions, he won’t seek to renew his contract when it expires in October.
The flat numbers come as a surprise for St. Petersburg officials who vowed the city could support curbside recycling. In his first few weeks on the job, Mayor Bill Foster pushed for the program after Pinellas County officials failed to deliver countywide curbside service. St. Petersburg was the last of 24 Pinellas cities to offer curbside recycling.
Now, even unincorporated parts of Pinellas boast higher participation rates. Nine haulers who offer the service to 160,000 county homes report participation at about 30 percent, said Bob Hauser, the county’s director of solid waste.
St. Petersburg lags behind at 9.5 percent.
Why does a city with such a green reputation stumble on curbside recycling?
“That’s a good question,” Wunderlich said. “Somewhere there’s a disconnect.”
Foster said he thought that with all the media attention from the program’s debut, signing customers wouldn’t be a problem.
“In a way, I thought it would sell itself,” Foster said. “What’s not to love about it?”
Foster now says the program needs a bigger marketing push. In addition to promoting it more often in city utility bills, at the Saturday Morning Market and with neighborhood groups, Foster is asking the City Council on Thursday to approve an expansion of the program that would give customers a discount on garbage pickup.
If approved, single-family homes occupied by two people on lots of 8,500 square feet or less would qualify for once-a-week trash pickup. Those who choose to switch from two-day pickup — and agree to sign up for recycling — will save $4.25 off their total monthly bill, said public works administrator Mike Connors.
“Hopefully, this will increase the number of people who subscribe to curbside recycling,” Connors said.
This time around, Wunderlich isn’t leaving it up to the city.
“We were so enthusiastic about it,” Wunderlich said. “There was so much fanfare. But then, it went away. People stopped talking about it. As environmental leaders, we were like, ‘Oh, we have it. Let’s move on.’ ”
He and Tim Martin, a representative with the Council on Neighborhood Associations, have sent emails to neighbors urging them to sign up others.
“If we don’t use this service, we lose this service!” Martin wrote. “We begged for curbside and our elected officials need to hear that we appreciate the effort and want to use it.”
Martin said he’s optimistic that they can rally enough support.
“People don’t know it’s available,” Martin said. “We need to get the word out.”
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.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.
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