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An automated side loader collects recycling from a home on 137th Lane North in Largo.

LARGO — Despite mounting costs and an unstable market, it doesn’t appear the city’s recycling program will be going away anytime soon. 

City commissioners voted 6-1 on Oct. 15 to approve a three-year, $1.161 million contract with 

Waste Management Inc. of Florida to process the city’s recyclables.

For the past five years, the city of Largo made about $300,000 annually for its recyclables. Now, thanks to a decline in the market for some materials, the city will end up paying $387,000 each year for Waste Management to take its roughly 6,000 tons of mixed recyclables.

“When we signed our original processing agreement in 2014, the average material value for a ton of material was $125,” Robert Comi, assistant solid waste manager, told commissioners. “Today the average material value is $41. Processors are now requiring the generators assume the commodity value risk while they demand a higher processing fee to cover their costs and ensure their profitability.”

Comi said the city has been working without a contract since February, has put its materials out to bid three times and only had one viable bid. 

Under the terms of the agreement, the city will pay Waste Management $105 per ton to process the materials. However, the city will receive a rebate for the value of the items, which is presently $40.50 each ton. So the bottom-line fee will be $64.50 each ton. 

Commissioner Curtis Holmes, who cast the sole dissenting vote, didn’t mince words when sharing his thoughts about the proposed agreement. 

“This is one of the dumbest ideas I’ve seen in a long time,” Holmes said. “This is really a con on our customers.”

Instead of paying $64.50 each ton, Holmes said the city should consider using Pinellas County services, which would cost $39.75 each ton. 

He suggested continuing to pick up products that still have a profitable market — metal and cardboard — while sending everything else to the county’s Waste-to-Energy facility, which can process up to 3,150 tons of solid waste per day while generating 75-megawatt hours of renewable electrical energy.

“I don’t know why we don’t change this program around where it is viable,” he said. “Just change it where we’re not going to pick up the plastics and everything else. Let it go to the incinerator. That’s not going to a landfill. ... That is a recycling plant because it burns it for energy. The only thing that goes to the dump are the ashes. That’s it. You’re not going to get any litter coming out of an incinerator. It’s not going to happen.”

Holmes also questioned why the city would pay someone else to take lesser-value materials to a landfill when the city could do it itself. 

Comi said that wasn’t the case. 

“They (Waste Management) are committed under contract to recycle everything that is recyclable,” he said, adding that the company just takes a loss on certain products like mixed paper. “The only thing they’re not committed to recycle is what we would refer to as residue, which is trash items and small items that can’t be recovered.”

Cleaning up the program

Mayor Woody Brown and Commissioner Jamie Robinson disagreed with Holmes that large-scale changes needed to be made, because it could end up costing the city more in the long run if it had to restart the program. 

“It took us a long time to get to the level of participation, which I think is 75, 80 percent of our residents recycle,” Brown said. “I think it would be a bad idea to say, ‘Eh, we’re not going to do that anymore.’”

Brown noted that the county also will be raising its rates 6% each of the next two years.

While the majority of residents utilize the program, Brown and Robinson said educating residents on how to properly recycle should be the first step in an effort to cut costs.

One of the main reasons for the decline in the market was that China, the world’s biggest importer of recyclables, imposed much stricter limits last year on the amount of contaminated materials it was willing to take.

Robinson said he just recently saw a bin full of palm fronds, which ends up costing the city money because the quality of the products is factored into the amount of money the city will receive for its materials.

“I know we’re never going to stop everybody from putting things in the recycling bin that we cannot recycle, but I think we need to do a better job of educating our customers,” he said. “And we also need to do a better job of educating the customers as far as how they can reduce the amount of products that they use in general.”

Public Works Director Matthew York said plastic grocery bags and Ziploc bags are the biggest culprits.

“That clogs up the machines, causes downtime, causes increased costs,” he said. 

Looking ahead

Robinson also suggested following St. Petersburg’s lead and starting a free residential composting program.

“I would like to see if that’s something that’s feasible here in the city of Largo,” he said.

Brown emphasized patience but said discussions needed to get underway on how to get costs down, such as adding containers for valuable materials like cardboard at the city’s drop-off recycling center on Starkey Road.

“We need to kind of think outside of the bin,” he said with a smirk.