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Washington Post blames big blue bins for rise in recycling costs

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Next week trucks deployed by the City of St. Pete for the sole purpose of collecting curbside recycling will hit the streets in some areas officially marking the start of a universal recycling program long-anticipated.

But its being ushered in with a host of criticisms ranging from how and when the recycling will be picked up to whether or not ratepayers should be forced to pay for the program even if they choose not to use it.

One of the chief complaints has been the recycling containers size – it’s too big, many people argue.

It’s an argument that has largely been dismissed by a city focusing more on appeasing residents with alley access homes angry their recycling will be picked up in the front of their homes instead of the back.

But the city may have more of a reason to pay attention than originally thought.

In a lengthy Washington Post feature this weekend discussing the pros, cons and challenges associated with recycling, Aaron C. Davis points to one glaring problem – the big blue bins.

He notes the idea of single stream recycling began in the 1990s in California where leaders and environmental advocates figured the best way to increase participation was to make it easier. It’s an obvious notion and makes plenty of sense. But there is some nuance.

For starters, allowing good-intentioned recyclers to throw everything into one giant bin means more contamination. There’s more room for entire boxes. Often boxes don’t even need to be broken down to fit in the larger containers, leaving recycling facilities facing an influx in non-recyclables like styrophoam and other packing materials.

The inclusion of glass leads to broken shards contaminating other would-be value grabbers. Glass also carries little value on the recycling market anymore.

And participants increasingly began including other contaminants – regular trash if you will – into the recycling bins.

“Residue jumped a ton,” Hallie Clemm, deputy administrator for the Washington, D.C.’s solid waste management division, told The Washington Post. “In fact, so much nonrecyclable material was being stuffed into the bins that after an audit by Waste Management last fall, the share of the city’s profit for selling recyclables plummeted by more than 50 percent.

According to The Washington Post the contaminated recycling drove the city’s processing price to nearly $63 a ton. That’s 24 percent higher than if all the materials were sent to a nearby incinerator.

That staggering data doesn’t look good for St. Pete, where officials defend the cost of recycling by pointing out costs go down as participation increases. While the city has made a conscious effort to educate residents on the various do’s and don’ts of recycling, it’s still very likely many residents will unknowingly contaminate their recycling by adding greasy pizza boxes or used spaghetti jars with tomato sauce residue still inside.

The Washington Post article also points out that profits for recycling are going down. When cities recycle they are actually paid per ton for the materials collected. Those profits help offset the cost of programs.

But with glass being rarely sought after, newsprint in increasingly short demand and an overall decrease in how products are packaged, the demand for recycled products has decreased.

For example, the amount of plastic that used to be yielded by 22 standard water bottles now requires 36. That’s because companies are realizing the benefit in lightening the load of products by cutting down on packaging.

Another example used by The Washington Post includes ground coffee. Gone are the days of tin coffee cans. They’ve been replaced by much lighter vacuum-sealed aluminum.

And tuna – many brands now package the popular fish in vacuum-sealed bags instead of cans. Even many soups and sauce mixes now come in bags instead of jars.

All that evidence leads to a daunting conclusion for recycling naysayers or those still on the fence – the cost probably won’t go down for ratepayers. Worse, the $2.95 tacked on to St. Pete utility bills beginning in August could even go up if the trends in this article are taken literally.

But there is a saving grace that could keep St. Pete on track for maintaining or even reducing solid waste and recycling costs. Even if recycling is contaminated, it still detracts from the amount of rubbish tossed into the trash.

St. Pete’s goal is to eventually increase participation in recycling to the point where that pickup can increase to weekly, rather than bi-weekly, and solid waste pickup can decrease to once weekly instead of twice weekly.

If that happens, residents could see a drop in their bills. At the very least it would likely offset the cost of increased recycling fees.

Either way, the evidence presented by The Washington Post spells bad news for the already rotting recycling climate in St. Pete.

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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