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Darden Rice encourages flexibility in fixing recycling kinks

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

There’s been a vocal pouring of criticism over St. Pete’s recycling program rollout. For weeks residents in single-family or small multi-family homes have been receiving recycling bins at their homes.

They’re big. They’re blue. And they’re being dropped off in front yards all over the city.

Some people think they’re ugly. Some are mad they can’t put the bins in an alley for pickup instead of the curb. Some don’t want the government telling them what to do and some just don’t think they should have to pay the extra $3 a month for a service they didn’t ask for.

But these problems aren’t surprising to city leaders, especially City Council member Darden Rice, who has been championing the program since before she was even elected.

“Every city goes through these growing pains,” Rice said. “Every city goes through these issues with the rollout.”

But instead of just waiting for the noise to quiet and the problems to somehow just magically float away – instead of insisting there are no problems – Rice is spearheading an effort to fix the issues she recognizes are actually there.

Rice has put the issue on the City Council meeting agenda for this Thursday. She wants to hear from residents who have questions or who want to bring up some possible problems and she wants to talk about ways to fix them.

“We don’t need to make it any more difficult by responding to people in a blunt way,” Rice said, referring the current take it or leave it mentality that seems to be the perception. “People want to feel like they’re being listened to.”

One of the biggest problems likely to be addressed on Thursday is alley pickup. Under the current plan homes with alley access won’t be able to take their recycling bin to the same place their trash is located. Instead, the bins have to be rolled to the curb.

This has been criticized as a giant shortcoming and oversight. Many homes with alley access don’t have driveways. Many don’t have a place to conveniently store the 95-gallon bin. Cars in these kinds of neighborhoods tend to park on roadways creating potential challenges for trucks attempting to use automated systems to pick up and dump the bins.

“Their emails are productive,” Rice said.

Rice said the emails she’s seen from people concerned with the alley issue are typically from people supportive of the overall concept of recycling who are just offering ideas on how to make the program better and more accessible.

But the city has said alley pickup is not possible. According to city staff, the trucks ordered for the program are too big. There’s also a question of safety because the over-sized shared garbage bins in alley ways are strategically positioned away from trees and power lines.

But Rice still thinks there should be a way to accommodate residents.

“It’s not that difficult to do a course correction when it comes to trucks on alleyways or bins,” she said. “You can find any mode where you can adjust settings to make it work.”

Another concern weighing on the minds of critics and those on the fence is the way the bins look. As crews work to deliver bins before pickup service begins later this month, blue bins have dotted front yards all over the city.

Some residents quickly move the bins out of sight, but others don’t. Bins have also been delivered to vacant homes where there isn’t anyone at all to move them.

That’s another issue Rice said will be brought up on Thursday.

There’s also the question of both cost and “the government is forcing me to recycle.”

No, the government isn’t forcing anyone to recycle, but everyone does have to pay. That’s a problem for people who don’t plan to use the program.

Rice said she expects there will always be a small but vocal minority of people who will never be happy with the program. But for those whose minds could still be changed she reminds that recycling is not just an environmentally sound practice, it is also more sustainable over the long haul.

“The more people recycle, the more this works, the more we save money,” she said.

The city currently pays nearly $40 per ton in tipping fees and that’s low. Rice said that number would eventually go up as contracts with vendors are negotiated.

The goal is to eventually increase recycling to the point where solid waste collection can be reduced to once weekly instead of twice and recycling pickup can be increased from once bi-weekly to once weekly. That would hold costs down and potentially even reduce them.

Another complaint surfacing as blue bins continue to roll out concerns people who are elderly or disabled. Some emails have rolled into City Council in boxes arguing individuals wouldn’t be able to manage the task of getting the large bins to the curb.

For those individuals the city already has a solution, and it’s free. With a doctor’s note describing need and a simple “tub out” form filled out, residents can request service that allows a city employee to retrieve the bin from their yard to dump and then return it when they are done.

That service is already available for residents who have rolling bins for solid waste.

In the meantime, Rice is asking residents to be patient and understand this is a new process. She hopes residents will trust City Council to work out the kinks.

But for those who still loathe the blue bin, beginning July 1 the city will collect unwanted bins from homes who request it. To do that residents must file a request with the city’s newly formed recycling department. They can be reached at 727-893-7838.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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