TAMPA — Those hulking blue bins taking up significant space in local garages and side yards are getting a lot more use than Hillsborough County officials predicted.
Since switching to the new automated waste management and recycling program four months ago, the number of households participating in unincorporated Hillsborough’s recycling program has doubled — from 33 percent to nearly 67 percent — said Solid Waste Manager Kim Byer. And the amount of aluminum, cardboard, glass, steel and paper being collected has increased by 90 percent.
Solid waste officials are thrilled with the initial results, and are cautiously optimistic that participation will remain high. “If you take the straight math of it, the first four months of a new program doesn’t show how it will be forever, but we are seeing a very positive trend,” said John Lyons, the county’s public works director.
“Single-stream” recycling collection — putting everything in one bin — is fairly new, but is a nationwide trend, said Ron Henricks, a waste reduction administrator with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. “Ten years ago nobody was doing it.” Now, he said, about half of Florida’s nearly 20 million people are served by such programs.
By allowing consumers to put all recyclables in one curb-side cart — instead of separating the items — they tend to find it easier and more acceptable, Henricks said.
Hillsborough County is third, statewide — behind Martin and Lee counties — in the percentage of waste it is recycling, Henricks said. As a whole, he said, Florida is recycling 48 percent of its waste. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 34 percent of waste generated nationally was being recycled in one way or another as of 2009.
Last year, before Hillsborough initiated its automated program, haulers reported collecting about 32,000 tons of recyclables, Lyons said. The county now is on target to collect 60,000 tons of materials in this first year of the new program.
Byer, the Solid Waste manager, said her department will study which neighborhoods are doing a good job recycling and which ones might need more education. The county’s new recycling bins are equipped with computer chips so that every time one tips into a recycling truck, a record is made. “Once we get our arms around that data, we will be able to figure out which neighborhoods to gear that outreach toward,” Byer said.
Since launching the new program, the county has taken in $1.38 million from selling recyclables. Previously, county waste haulers owned the recyclables they collected. Now, Progressive Waste Solutions, the county’s processor, receives an average of $120 per ton for recyclables, keeps $50 of that for processing and gives the county nearly 97 percent of the remaining $70, Lyons said. That money will be used to keep collection fees down, he said.
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Since 1988, the Florida Legislature has set recycling goals for the state’s 33 largest counties. The goal for this year calls for those counties to recycle 50 percent of the waste they generate; and 75 percent by 2020. Counties such as Hillsborough, which has a waste-to-energy plant on Falkenburg Road, are able to reach that goal more quickly because they get recycling credits for creating electricity from trash, Henricks said.
While state environmental officials can withhold grant money from counties that don’t comply with the Legislature’s goals, most counties have moved forward to comply with the measures. “In the mid-90s, there was a smaller county that basically told us to go jump in the lake; ‘We aren’t going to do this and we aren’t going to report to you.’ We cut off their grant money and told the press,” Henricks said. “They got in line real quick.”
Many of the advances in Florida’s recycling efforts are not, however, a result of threats from the state. “It has been local citizen interest that has driven the programs in most parts of the state,” Henricks said.
“People do push for it and Hillsborough County is listening,” said Patricia DePlasco, community relations director for Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, which focuses on reducing waste. “They are ramping up. This new initiative is phenomenal. So many more people are recycling because of the ease of this program.”
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Recycled materials are used to create new products, and cut down on the amount of virgin material mined or harvested, processed and transported, federal environmental officials say. They also reduce space needed for landfills.
A 2009 federal study concluded 42 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are associated with energy used to produce, process, transport and dispose of the food consumers eat and the goods they use.
Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. Scientific research shows that natural causes don’t explain away global warming, especially since the mid-20th century, according to federal environmental officials. By recycling more and cutting back on mining and production, less greenhouse gas is created.
But recycling should be the last step, DePlasco said. “What needs to be the first step is our own personal relationship with our waste,” he said, adding that creating less waste in the first place is a significant way to decrease human effects on the Earth.