Recycling deficits in St. Petersburg Need Solutions from Elected Officials
By Nageena Laing, Kelsey Knight and Karen Arango
The City of Saint Petersburg touts itself as being a “Green City,” mobilizing campaigns to support eco-friendly ventures, green movement initiatives, and reducing waste whenever possible. The city campaigns for all its residents to take part in the fight against climate change, including its recycling program, which mobilized in 2015. While these efforts seem impressive and innovative, the city is failing a number of its residents by denying them the ability to participate in the city-wide recycling pick-up program.
The neighborhoods currently receiving services in the City of Saint Petersburg are single-family households and condominiums with less than four units. Interviewing Jeff Donnel from the Sanitation department, he explained the average amount of participants in this group are about 65 percent, about 72-76,000 participants. This number sounds ideal, except it does not include the already large population of condominiums or townhomes in its services. According to a 2016 Tampa Bay Times article, condo development is the future of population growth for the city; land development becomes sparser while the city’s population continues to grow at a faster pace. In response to this fact, Mr. Donnel explained there should not be a problem for condos and townhomes who want to recycle because they can utilize the drop-off/brush sites throughout the city or hire companies like Waste Pro or ConEx to pick up recycling.
Drop-off Site Inconveniences
These solutions proposed by Mr. Donnel present a few problems. When speaking with a condo resident of St. Pete’s District 7, Ms. Kristin Reilly pointed out how hard it would be to drive once or twice a week to a drop-off location, considering work schedule conflicts with the operating hours of these sites and how far away drop off sites can be from condo or townhome residents. For Ms. Reilly, while her work schedule allows her to get to a drop-off site before closing hours, she lives at least 15 minutes away from the closest site. While looking at the city’s drop-off site map, there are only 2 drop-off sites in all of South St. Pete, which encompasses the entire District 5 and 7 communities. Ms. Reilly and many community members would have to drive that long or longer just to drop off their recycling. Ms. Reilly also pointed out the inability of many of her neighbors to drop off their recycling because they do not have a vehicle or are too feeble to do it on their own.
As to Mr. Donnel’s other point about hiring outside companies, residents who currently receive recycling services have a set rate included in their utility bill’s garbage fee. The fee overall is less than $28 a month for both garbage and recycling pick-up. When speaking to one of the outsourced company spokespersons, Tracy Meehan from Waste Pro, she stated how it would cost more for condos and townhomes to hire outsourced companies for recycling than if they were given the same services by the city. The incentive is not there for condos and townhome HOAs to hire these companies if the price is going to be more expensive than the low rate the city would offer.
The solution would be simple if the city could expand its program to include condos and townhomes, but Mr. Donnel explained this is not possible. The recycling company the city is currently partnered with, Waste Connections, is running at a monthly deficit and cannot expand its current program because it is already operating at full capacity. This deficit issue is not just a problem for the city of Saint Pete. There is a huge problem for recycling businesses all around the country. Almost all recycling facilities are operating at capacity with a deficit at the end of every month, and these companies cannot expand anymore because the auditing prices are so low, meaning there is not enough money in the industry for businesses to afford larger spaces.
China’s Policy Change
The money issue can be traced back to China’s 2017 policy change. According to Wired.com, up until recently, China had been buying about 40 percent of US paper, plastics, and other recyclables. The trans-Pacific waste route has now ground to a halt. In July 2017, China told the World Trade Organization it no longer wanted to be the end-point for foreign garbage since the country needed to cope with its own mountains of waste. Since January 2018, China has rejected 2 dozen different recycling materials, such as plastic and mixed paper unless they meet strict rules pertaining to contamination. The imported recycling must be clean and unmixed—a standard too hard to meet for most American cities. Mr. Donnel explained how this ban has caused a very low return for companies recycling anything other than aluminum and a change in revenue is not expected anytime soon.
With no expansion in sight for the city’s current recycling program, it is imperative that our elected officials, in the upcoming November elections for District 5 and 7, take a hard look at resident needs and bring this to the table to discuss and find solutions. While there can be more than one solution, a suggestion at this point could be for the city to hire one of these outsource companies to service condos and townhomes and bill the same low rate to those residents. Either way, all residents deserve easy and equal access to St. Pete’s recycling program if the “Green City” wants to keep true to its name.