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Patience needed in recycling battle

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Local media coverage has extensively covered the curbside recycling rollout that kicked off Monday, officially ending St. Pete’s reign as Florida’s largest city without a universal program.

That sounds like a good thing, but the issue has been marred by controversy because the bins are only being picked up curbside despite 40 percent of St. Pete homes having alley access where trash is picked up.

Reporters across the board have reported on the city’s optimism and the concerns of residents including more than just where the bins are picked up, but also their size and even color.

SaintPetersblog has covered the issue extensively, analyzing weeks’ worth of emails sent to the city about the program. Days later the Tampa Bay Times did the same.

The issue has been put out there, but little has been done to editorialize on the issue. Not much has been said about whether the controversy is out of hand. The Tampa Bay Times editorial board correctly wrote that it was a legitimate concern and should be addressed by a “flexible” city. But they stopped short at discussing anything other than whether the city should allow curbside recycling.

Neighborhoods like Historic Old Northeast, Historic Kenwood and Grenada Terrace have all been screwed. It sucks for residents in homes where people are accustomed to walking trash out the back door to an alley – where front yards are usually without a driveway, garage and sometimes even a gate.

Many of those residents will have to work substantially harder to participate in curbside recycling because their homes are just not designed to drag disposables to the curb. And it’s those neighborhoods where bins could likely be the biggest eye sore. To store the infamous big blue bin in a place where it’s convenient to haul to the street some folks have little choice but to keep it in plain sight.

Sure, some may opt to build an enclosure, but that’s an extra step and an added expense. Others may store it in the back and take the long trip around the block to place it curbside. Still others may not have a problem at all.

Regardless, it was a huge oversight and one city staff should have anticipated and planned for. The problem should be addressed and remedied.

That said, now is not the time to fix it.

None have been louder in opposition to curbside recycling – the curbside part, not the recycling part – than leaders of HONNA. The Old Northeast residents don’t want their pristine roads blighted with ugly blue bins. They don’t want recycling participation to suffer because residents are unable to get a bin to the curbside where they’d have no trouble getting it to the alley.

Their complaints and worries are valid. And they’re not alone. Leaders of the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association where I live have been vocal in opposition to mandating curbside pickup too. Homes here in my neck of the woods face similar problems with alley pickup and streets sometimes narrow and cluttered with cars.

But HONNA leaders, headed up by Peter Motzenbecker, expect too much too soon and should be patient. The city has said they will address the issue. They’ve said it over and over.

St. Pete City Council spent a great deal of time during a meeting just a few weeks ago discussing the hiccups with Public Works Administrator Mike Connors. Darden Rice asked him and his staff to be flexible. Amy Foster echoed the same.

If staff doesn’t get with the program soon after the rollout, I can think of few elected leaders with the gusto to tackle the problem than Rice and Foster.

During a press conference both Connors and Mayor Rick Kriseman said the city just needed to get the rollout under its belt before addressing the kinks.

But that doesn’t mean Motzenbecker and other community activists should hold their tongue and sit on their hands. They should just be less abrasive.

Calling attention to a problem obvious to your neighbors but not to the entire city is important to foster change, but the message need not sound like whining.

On the first day of recycling in Old Northeast participation appeared stronger than it did in Old Southeast. The difference was, the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association president hosted a press conference celebrating the program while HONNA’s president hosted one bashing it.

A simple drive up and down the streets of the southern part of Old Northeast showed home after home with a blue bin placed outside for pickup. In the northern section of the area where residents won’t have recycling picked up for another couple of weeks, blue bins were discreetly stored out of sight. Over about seven blocks I counted only three visible from the road and two of them were partially concealed.

Yet HONNA distributed an image showing an overflowing bin in front of an otherwise pristine home. The yard was perfectly manicured suggesting pride of ownership, yet that same resident placed an unsightly overstuffed bin in front of the house for all to see? Seems questionable.

If the photo was legit, shame on that homeowner. Simple instructions were provided with the bin when it was delivered describing when it would be picked up.

If it was staged, shame on HONNA.

Their plight is clear. The problem they are fighting is real and needs to be solved. No one can dispute that. Artificially exaggerating a problem to make a point is unnecessary and childish.

Residents in the city need to work together to make sure recycling is a success. It’s a huge program with a complicated rollout. Did the city screw up? Yes. Was there an obvious oversight? Of course. But these things happen with any new, large-scale programs and they eventually get worked out.

Someone very close to me once called these issues “gremlins.”

The city, as the Times editorial pointed out, should be flexible and figure out a way to accommodate alley access. But residents in traditional neighborhoods should be patient and cooperative in finding a solution.

And for those who recycled religiously before curbside recycling – no matter where you live or how hard it is to get a bin to the curb, I’m betting it’s a million times easier than making regular trips to recycling centers where sorting sticky cans from collapsed cardboard can be a stinky job.

NOTE: The views expressed in this column are that of the author, Janelle Irwin, and do not necessarily represent those of Extensive Enterprises.

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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