The Devil is still in the details as St. Pete embraces universal curbside recycling

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Supporters packed the St. Pete City Council Chamber, Mayor Rick Kriseman was there to oversee the auspicious event – last week, St. Pete’s City Council voted to have the city staff begin the RPO process with the goal of bringing mandatory, universal curbside recycling to Florida’s fourth largest city by next September.

Please, don’t jump for joy just yet — by ordering an RPO, the council merely instructed city staff to solicit bids from outside vendors.

Stepping to the microphone, Tim Martin, an organizer with The People’s Trash said, “What a difference one election makes.”

Three council members and the mayor ran on platforms that included making universal recycling a priority. Previously, Mayor Bill Foster supported a voluntary subscription service and prior to that Mayor Rick Baker’s administration actively opposed it.

To date, participation in the voluntary subscription service that began in 2012 at a cost of $45.00 per year, per household has been around 10% of the city’s 76,000 eligible households.

The single biggest issue was whether or not the city should keep the project in-house or outsource it.

Mike Connors, the city’s public works administrator told council that the capital investment in trucks, recycling bins and human resources would be in the neighborhood of $12 million.

The new bins would be 90 gallons and similar to our current trash containers, and single stream recycling (you do not have to sort the recyclables) is the proposed method.

Councilwoman Amy Foster questioned why recycle bins were estimated to be $88 each when her research revealed that comparable bins in other cities cost $48.

Connors answered that our bins would be better quality and last longer – they would also contain a GPS chip that will tell collectors who has put out their recyclables and how often. He insisted that the data would be used to reward frequent users.

Further questions about whether or not that data might be used to cite residents who did not comply with mandatory recycling were allayed by city attorney, John Wolfe, who stated that a clause could be added to the contract to prevent the data’s use from having negative consequences for residents.

Councilman Steve Kornell also raised questions about using our existing garbage trucks, noted that most families don’t fill the current containers twice a week – our city charter calls for a twice weekly garbage pick-up – suggesting that one pick-up could be regular garbage and the second recyclables.

One resident who opposed the measure raised questions about the program’s effect on our garbage incineration program, which yields a whopping $2 million+ in income to the city each year through the sale of energy to Duke Energy.

Other concerns included Foster’s point that the program does not include multifamily properties or business participation, and there are unanswered questions about St. Pete’s share of a county fund that could be used to offset the estimated $12 million capital expenditure should we decide to administer the recycling program in-house.

Finally, the city has a preferential hiring policy for so called ‘hard-to-hires’ that would need to be honored and could be troubling for outside vendors.

The RPO was approved unanimously. Our new mayor and council are working it out, but the devil is in the details. With all these issues still up in the air, we are a long way from living up to our title of Florida’s First Green City, but we have at least taken a step in the right direction.