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HONNA continues to push back against blue bins despite rollout

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Parts of the Historic Old Northeast neighborhood were among the first round of residences to have recycling picked up curbside through St. Pete’s universal curbside recycling program. The Monday morning launch came as leaders in the neighborhood continued to jockey city staff to make changes to the program to better accommodate “traditional” neighborhoods.

Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association President Peter Motzenbecker led a press conference in the alley behind his home on Tenth Avenue North in Old Northeast. Motzenbecker’s is one of 40 percent of homes in St. Pete where solid waste is collected in alleyways rather than by rolling portable trash bins to the curb.

Yet recycling won’t be treated the same even in those areas.

“We would love to see St. Petersburg acknowledge that there was a misstep, that this perhaps is a mistake and that they will work with us to find a solution for our traditional neighborhoods,” Motzenbecker said.

Motzenbecker’s press conference followed another in the Old Southeast neighborhood where Mayor Rick Kriseman and other city leaders gathered to celebrate curbside recycling.

The story was much different at that conference. Residents who attended were jovial. They clapped and took photos as blue bins were, one by one, dumped into brand new CNG-powered trucks.

But residents who gathered about an hour later in Old Northeast didn’t gather to watch recycling picked up universally for the first time. They gathered in the alley to show that alley pickup was possible.

Instead of bringing the bins to the curb to be picked up, residents on Motzenbecker’s block lined the bins up behind homes neatly in the alley where they rested comfortably on driveways or easements.

The point Motzenbecker sought to demonstrate was simple – and effective. There was plenty of room for a truck to navigate his alley.

And when the point was made, Motzenbecker made another. He dragged his bin from the rear alley, around the block and down a sidewalk to place it where it could be picked up. And that was considered easy for this neighborhood.

“I can do this, but not everybody can,” he said.

The city does have a program established for solid waste pickup that allows certain residents to have their trash taken from their property, dumped and then returned to its designated spot at no additional cost to the user. That service is being extended for recycling as well. But users have to obtain a doctor’s note and demonstrate some reasonable need for the service.

A bum knee or occasional bout of gout probably wouldn’t fit the bill.

Another Old Northeast resident, David Bogart, said about 65 percent of the homes on his block do not have access to move their recycling bins from the back of their property to the front.

“They would have to come out, push it through their yard, over the little retaining walls like I have and down my walkway,” Bogart said. “Even empty I could not push this through the grass easily.”

Bogart said that unless the city does something to change the program to accommodate traditional neighborhoods, he simply won’t participate.

That has been one of the crucibles of HONNA’s argument – that curbside recycling is too onerous for residents with alley trash pickup and continuing to force curbside service will lead to poor participation.

While there’s no way to know for certain until the program has rolled out and been analyzed, it looked Monday morning as if Old Northeast was well on its way to great participation rates.

The northern part of Old Northeast is in a different zone and won’t have their recycling picked up until July 9. The southern part of the neighborhood is in Zone 1.

Driving through the neighborhood was like hitting a wall of blue bins. As the border of Zone 1 and Zone 6 approached, the blue bins suddenly sprawled out ahead as far as the eye could see – or at least as far as one could see down the road.

Block after block showed signs of participatory residents. Many bins had scraps of cardboard poking out of the lids. Some had so much recycling they had extra boxes piled along with the blue bins.

Motzenbecker’s block seemed to be the only one void of the blue bin.

But Old Northeast resident Jay Weisenberg has several worries about that observation. The first: that’s not necessarily an accurate representation of participation.

As Weisenberg correctly points out, residents have had those bins for weeks before the first pickup. As the program moves forward the bins will be picked up twice a month and the overflowing bins won’t likely be as full.

“They’re going to say after this first pickup we had overwhelming participation – we picked up a record tonnage,” Weisenberg said. “But all this tonnage has been sitting here for two months.”

He also said many of the bins dotting Old Northeast roadways have been there since they got delivered.

“And they’re not going anywhere,” Weisenberg said.

As for the seemingly obvious wall of blue bins delineating zones in the neighborhood, Weisenberg said that can be explained by the types of homes built in that part of the neighborhood.

“Some of the homes were built later and have more space,” he said.

And residents, including Weisenberg, still have concerns that the recycling message hasn’t been received loud enough among residents.

“If I had been doing this I would have made sure every media outlet was talking about it as much as possible,” Weisenberg said.

Yet the city did make substantial outreach efforts.

There were eight public meetings in March and April – one in each of the City Council districts – to educate the public. City staff and elected leaders attended various community events like the Green Thumb Festival and a Black History Month Celebration.

There were inserts sent out in utility bills. Information was placed at libraries and recreation centers.

The city ran ads in the Tampa Bay Times both in print and online throughout May advertising the program. There were bus wraps and billboards – a banner at St. Pete Pride.

If all else failed, the bins were delivered to homes with specific instructions on how, when and where to recycle.

Yet the complaints continued to roll in as bins continued to roll out.

Not everyone in Old Northeast is quite as up in arms over the program, though. Linda Dobbs said she’s willing to wait for the city to find a fix that works for traditional neighborhoods.

“I don’t mind being patient if they would say, ‘alright, we’re working on it’ but we haven’t heard that they’re working on it.” Dobbs said. “We’ve heard that this is the way it is and that upsets us.”

One of the city’s goals is to gradually increase recycling participation in order to decrease the need for solid waste pickup. Ultimately that would mean the city would transition to once-per-week trash pickup instead of twice a week.

“If that bin were half full rather than full, I might be able to move it,” Dobbs said about increasing recycling pickup.

For those still unsure about where or when to put their bins out, information is available on the city’s website. There’s also a downloadable app that notifies users of sanitation schedules and also provides opportunities to notify the city of missed pickups.

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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