Pinellas looks to the future of solid waste and recycling

Paul Sacco, director of the county’s Solid Waste Department, updates county commissioners about the power agreement with Duke Energy and work done to try to solve a problem with the rising costs of recycling during an April 22 work session.

LARGO — In the not-so-distant future, Pinellas County commissioners will have decisions to make that could greatly affect the solid waste department and budget.

Currently, Pinellas receives about $86 million annually from an agreement with Duke Energy for the power generated by the waste-to-energy facility. That agreement expires in December of 2024.

Staff has been negotiating with the power company for years now, but has yet to come up with anything that comes close to the current 30-year agreement that has proven favorable to the county.

Solid Waste Director Paul Sacco delivered the news to the commissioners during an April 22 work session. Currently, Duke pays the county $9.17 million a year for the power it generates plus another $77.4 million for its annual capacity payment. The total is about 57% of Solid Waste’s budget.

Duke’s standard offer for a new 20-year contract to buy future power generated is not nearly as lucrative. The total would be $7.7 million a year without any capacity payments, which is a huge loss in revenue.

“We didn’t get a favorable contract negotiated,” Sacco said.

He said state statute requires Duke to purchase the power generated by the county; however, the rate is less than it was when the initial contract was negotiated and capacity payments are a thing of the past. However, if an agreement is reached, the county would still be required to meet the capacity requirements without any incentive.

Sacco said meeting capacity would not be a problem in the near-term, as the county had just made improvements at the waste-to-energy facility. However, he said it was possible over the life of a long-term contract an investment would be needed to meet the capacity terms of the agreement.

Currently, the best option would be a two-year contract to sell the power and then see what the future might bring. The hope is for a legislative change that would allow more flexibility in how the county could use the power it generates, such as using it to supply its own needs.

Meanwhile, something will have to be done to make up for the lost revenue. Suggestions include increasing tipping fees charged at the land fill, reducing operating costs, enhancing metals recovery, implementing on-site metals cleaning and/or solar power generation.

Rising cost of recycling

Sacco’s report on ways to combat the rising costs for recycling wasn’t that promising.

In 2018, China changed how much contamination it would accept on recycled materials, which essentially eliminated the market, Sacco said. By 2019, the market was so depressed conflicts became common between collectors and processors.

Safety Harbor then announced it was ending its recycling program and planned to take all its materials to the county’s facility to be burned. The problem was that Solid Waste didn’t have the capacity to take on all the county’s recycled materials, so officials had a talk with Safety Harbor, and the city rescinded its decision.

Sacco said if recycled materials were put back in the waste stream, it would overwhelm the waste-to-energy facility and the overflow would have to go to the landfill, which would vastly impact its life. Sacco said there is no longer any profit in recycling. He said the reason to do it was because it is the right thing to do.

Commissioners asked the Technical Management Committee in January 2020 to research the market to see what was available for clean, non-contaminated recyclables. The committee also was asked to assess current recycling practices and the composition of what was being collected by municipalities with curbside service. The goal was to see what materials were most valuable.

Lastly, the committee was asked to research the possibility of a publicly owned materials recovery facility. Sacco presented two preliminary options. The first was to build a materials recovery facility in Pinellas at a cost of $30 million to $40 million with a processing cost of $60-$70 per ton. The county would need a site of at least 3 acres to make it work.

The second option was to build a facility in Hillsborough County, which has said it could accommodate Pinellas by adding a second shift.

The cost to Pinellas would be $15 million for a transfer station, plus $60-$70 per ton for processing, another $1-$5 a ton administrative fee, $8-$15 a ton for transfer station charges and $15 a ton for transportation for a total of $84-$105 a ton.

The committee has made three recommendations thus far. The first was to develop a countywide standard for recycled materials and municipal contracts for collection and processing.

The second was to have staff finalize the evaluation of using a materials recovery facility and bring back a report for final consideration in September.

The third recommendation was to develop a countywide recycling ordinance that would require residential, multi-family and commercial recycling. Sacco said that would likely take a total rewrite as the current recycling ordinance had not been revised in years.

Next steps would include deciding what should be recycled and what to do about municipal contracts, as well as making a decision about the possibility of municipally owned materials recovery facilities.

The last step, Sacco said, would be stakeholder engagement.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.