A recycling bin is out for pickup on Feb. 2 in Clearwater, where city officials are trying to sort out problems with their recycling program. Interim City Manager Jennifer Poirrier said she plans to hire a consultant to help address the issue.

CLEARWATER — When Clearwater officials discovered on Jan. 6 that the city had failed to recycle any of the materials it picked up from residents since June, they initially offered a straightforward explanation.

Two tractor trailers the city uses to transfer recyclables to WM, its processor in Tampa, were broken for most of those six months. Solid waste staff never informed administration, interim City Manager Jennifer Poirrier said. With the problem identified, recycling resumed on Jan. 9.

But data obtained by the Tampa Bay Times shows that inconsistencies with recycling stretch back even further. The available numbers are so baffling that Poirrier intends to hire a consultant to investigate the solid waste department and the city’s recycling program.

The issue partly stems from Clearwater’s lack of a long-term contract with a processor, but staff turnover is also a factor, hampering the city’s ability to determine how long problems have been occurring and why.

Between Jan. 9 and Jan. 31 this year, the first month recycling resumed following the breach, the city sent 231 tons to WM for processing. It was the largest amount the city had recycled since January 2020, and more than twice what it processed in most of those months.

Records also show large fluctuations in what the city sent to be processed — 97 tons in January 2021 and 26 tons the next month; 122 tons in May 2022 and 49 tons the following month.

City officials could not confirm the reasons for the drastic swing in weights.

“We’re still going through this,” Poirrier said. “At the end of this we’ll have more definitive answers.”

Poirrier said she determined that WM had at times limited what the city could bring to its facility.

Emails show that in January, March and May of 2022, Clearwater solid waste officials wanted to bring at least two trailer loads per day, but WM representatives limited the city to one load due to machinery being down and capacity issues at the Tampa facility.

However, surrounding local governments have not reported problems in sending their recyclables to four local processing facilities, officials from St. Petersburg, Largo, Gulfport, Dunedin, Tampa, Pinellas County and Hillsborough County confirmed to the Times.

While customers are typically in long-term agreements, Clearwater was on a month-to-month contract since 2017, which created uncertainty for the processor, according to WM director of communications Dawn McCormick.

Tampa, for example, provides WM with an estimate of what it expects to deliver each year it renews its contract — about 18,000 tons annually, according to recycling coordinator Shelby Lewis. WM has never limited Tampa from sending its daily loads due to capacity constraints, Lewis said.

McCormick denied that WM has capacity issues but said the system relies on consistent deliveries and estimates from customers so the facility can be ready with staff and space on the floor where recyclables are dropped off. She said Clearwater historically had been “sporadic in their deliveries,” making it difficult to accommodate.

“It’s like standing in line at a restaurant,” McCormick explained. “If you have a reservation, we have a table, we know we can seat you. If you’re just coming in, we may be able to seat you, we may not.”

Poirrier could not answer why the city had been on a month-to-month contract for six years. She said around 2017, former solid waste director Earl Gloster explored the idea of the city building its own recycling processor, what’s known as a materials recovery facility.

Plans never materialized, but the city never secured a long-term contract with a processor. Gloster retired in November. Bryant Johnson, who worked as an assistant director under Gloster, resigned on Jan. 9, three days after Poirrier discovered that the department had not recycled since June.

Gloster and Johnson did not respond to calls for comment.

St. Petersburg has never had any of its 1,000 tons of recycling a month rejected at Waste Connections on 20th Street North due to capacity issues, according to Joe Vitale, the city’s recycling manager.

Even when Waste Connections could not accept 30 tons from St. Petersburg last year during floor repairs at the facility, the city was able to arrange for the materials to go to Recycling Services of Florida in Clearwater instead, Vitale said.

When Clearwater stopped delivering to WM in July, the recyclables were sent with regular refuse to the Pinellas County Solid Waste Disposal Complex, where about 90% of materials are processed into electricity and the rest goes to the landfill.

WM sent a letter to Clearwater Solid Waste in November stating it was dropping Clearwater’s month-to-month contract due to the city not sending any recycling to the facility since June. The former contract included a profit sharing arrangement, where the city received money back in certain months depending on market rates for the materials that WM sorted, bundled and sold.

In its November letter, WM said going forward the city could drop off recyclables with 24-hour notice at a cost of $150 per ton.

But the new arrangement, with no profit sharing, has been dramatically more expensive.

From January through June of 2022, the city sent 517 tons to WM and paid $406 to the processor after profit sharing.

Under the $150 per ton arrangement, Poirrier expects to have to pay WM $34,650 due to no profit sharing for the 231 tons of recyclables it sent from Jan. 9 to Jan. 31.

Poirrier said the city is pursuing a longer term contract with better rates with WM or other processors.

One of those, Waste Connections, told Clearwater officials in an email on Thursday it could not guarantee the city a monthly volume it would accept but that it “should be able to accommodate the majority of your materials.”

According to the email, Waste Connections would charge Clearwater $125 per ton but is unable to offer a profit share due “the volatility of current market conditions.”

Because recyclables are commodities, the price that processors can get for plastics, glass and paper fluctuate, according to Malak Anshassi, an assistant professor at Florida Polytechnic University who studies sustainable materials management. But after China stopped accepting recyclables from the U.S. and other countries in 2018, Anshassi said domestic paper mills and other remanufacturing facilities have filled the void to buy materials from processors.

Anshassi noted that new materials recovery facilities are being planned for Florida, including in Hillsborough County, to accommodate future population growth. But she is not aware of any current capacity constraints preventing recycling from getting processed.

“Practically all the materials stay domestically now,” Anshassi said. “I don’t believe any of these (materials recovery facilities) are taking things in and just throwing them away, that would be very surprising.”

Currently, most cities within Pinellas County have their own recycling programs and contract with one of four recycling processors that serve the area. In November, Pinellas County issued a solicitation for a provider to take on a countywide recycling contract for uniformity and to allow cities to obtain more affordable rates through a countywide agreement, according to Paul Sacco, Pinellas director of solid waste.

The county’s solicitation estimated it would need a processor to take on 60,000 tons annually.

Poirrier said she was hoping Clearwater could latch on to this countywide agreement. However when the solicitation window closed on Tuesday, no bids had been submitted.