A recycling bin is out for pickup in Clearwater, where city officials are trying to sort out problems in their recycling program. Interim City Manager Jennifer Poirrier said she plans to hire a consultant to help sort out the issue.

CLEARWATER — City officials confirmed Feb. 16 that a recycling breach they initially thought lasted for six months is actually a systemic failure that was occurring for at least four years.

The City Council had planned to discuss refunding customers for charges from July to January, when the solid waste department transported all residential recyclables with regular refuse to the Pinellas County Solid Waste Disposal Complex instead of sending them to the WM processing plant in Tampa.

But council members agreed to postpone refunds until a consultant can investigate the extent of the failure.

Interim City Manager Jennifer Poirrier discovered the problem on Jan. 6, and staff has since been investigating how it occurred. She told council members she learned this week that, since at least 2019, “we have been recycling significantly less than what it is that we collected.” She did not elaborate.

“We need much more information on what the hell is going on,” council member Mark Bunker said.

Clearwater has delivered a bafflingly low amount of recycling to WM each month for processing since January 2020, according to data from the processor that the Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month.

Between Jan. 9 and Jan. 31, after recycling restarted following the discovery of the breach, the city sent 231 tons to WM — more than twice what it delivered in most months in the last three years. When calculated per person, that’s about half of what St. Petersburg typically recycles each month.

Clearwater is also responsible for transporting recyclables from Belleair and Safety Harbor to WM for processing. However, in most months since January 2020, Clearwater’s total deliveries to WM were less than what the city had collected from just Belleair and Safety Harbor.

According to data provided by Pinellas County, Clearwater was sending truckloads of pure recycling to the solid waste complex at least as early as 2020.

However, the county data indicates that Clearwater didn’t deliver any pure recycling loads to the solid waste complex in 2021, meaning the recyclable materials were likely mixed in with regular refuse.

In addition, the tonnage sent to WM for recycling in 2021 was extraordinarily low, with widely varying amounts. For example, the city sent 97 tons in January 2021 and 26 tons the next month.

Poirrier said that, because the staff responsible for the recycling program during those periods are no longer with the city, the task of sorting out the debacle has been challenging. Former solid waste director Earl Gloster retired in November and former assistant director Bryant Johnson resigned in January following the discovery of the breach.

“We continue to look into this and are going to look into this until it’s totally resolved,” she said.

Council members expressed an urgency for answers but cautioned that the recycling industry has its challenges. Mayor Frank Hibbard noted that China stopped accepting recyclables from the U.S. and elsewhere in 2018, causing a problem for domestic processors to sell materials.

However in interviews, officials in the solid waste departments for Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Largo, Gulfport and Dunedin said they have not had the problems getting their recyclables to local processors that Clearwater has experienced.

The breach is also costing the city dearly. In November, WM discontinued Clearwater’s contract because the city had not delivered any recyclables since June. The contract included a profit-sharing agreement that is no longer in force.

From January through June of 2022, the city sent 517 tons to WM and paid $406 to the processor after profit sharing. Without the profit share, WM charges Clearwater $150 per ton. Under the new arrangement, Poirrier expects to have to pay WM $34,650 due to no profit sharing for the 231 tons of recyclables it sent in from Jan. 9 to Jan. 31.

Officials from Belleair and Safety Harbor said they have requested refunds for the months the city failed to recycle the materials they were contracted to transport to WM.

Now, Belleair Mayor Mike Wilkinson said he’s concerned that the problem appears to have been occurring longer than the last six months as originally thought.

“Our residents take the time and effort to separate and put their recycling on the curb,” Wilkinson said. “It’s concerning that it’s not happening and quite frankly there’s really no way right now that I know for sure that it is. The numbers aren’t adding up, you can’t argue that.”