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Pinellas County has a waste conundrum

Mark Parker



Pinellas County's Waste-to-Energy Facility in north St. Petersburg cannot keep up with a growing population's garbage. Photo: Pinellas County Government.

While Pinellas County’s Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facility burns an average of 2,700 tons daily, a growing population will soon create more refuse than the facility can process.

The excess garbage then heads for the area’s only landfill and takes up 10 times more space than if incinerators reduced it to ash. Solid Waste officials alerted residents in a virtual meeting Monday evening that Pinellas – the state’s most densely populated county – is reaching its waste capacity.

Local leaders now seek the public’s help to make the current landfill last. Those efforts include updating a Solid Waste Ordinance without a significant revision since the 1980s.

A key consideration is mandating countywide curbside recycling. However, details remain undecided, and county officials hope a series of virtual and in-person meetings will help establish a framework.

“We know that in the year 2026 – it could be a little earlier, could be a little bit later – we will be at capacity for the waste energy facility,” said Paul Sacco, solid waste director. “If we were to continue on the path that we are, and watch our population increase as projected, then in the year 2050, you’ll see that we are way over capacity.”

A graphic showing the Waste-to-Energy Facility’s capacity. Screengrab.

According to a poll at the two-hour meeting’s onset, 43% of participants live in a local municipality, 40% live in unincorporated areas and 17% live outside Pinellas. A social media post advertising the event said officials “especially” hoped to hear unincorporated residents’ ideas on increasing recycling efforts.

Attendees asked over 40 questions. There is a sense of urgency as the WTE facility, which Sacco said burns a million tons of garbage annually, will reach capacity in less than three years.

In addition, the county’s 2020 Solid Waste Master Plan calls for “zero waste” to reach the 700-acre landfill off 114th Avenue in north St. Petersburg by 2050.

“We know that we’re a built-out county,” Sacco said. “We’re never going to have another landfill within Pinellas County. Nobody is going to want that in our backyard. And we just couldn’t afford it. We wouldn’t get one, and we wouldn’t have one permitted.”

He explained that a single-family home generates about a ton of garbage annually. The WTE website notes that incinerating the refuse reduces volume by 90% and creates enough electricity to power 45,000 homes and businesses daily.

However, excess electricity is sold to Duke Energy to “offset operational costs.” The county uses the resulting ash as a landfill cover and recycles leftover metals.

While some attendees blamed overdevelopment for the problem, the overarching goal is to reduce waste and increase recycling efforts. Sacco said about 50% of trash is recyclable, and “we need to do better than that.”

A graphic showing the amount of recyclable waste arriving at the landfill. Screengrab.

He also noted that about 20% of recyclable refuse becomes contaminated. According to the county recycling guide, plastic bags, clothing, yard waste, paper towels and napkins, wires, foam packaging and anything with food residue do not belong in recycling bins.

Municipalities and county-licensed private haulers – in unincorporated areas – manage local garbage and recycling collection efforts. All garbage ends up at the Pinellas County Solid Waste Disposal Complex; recycling is taken to privately-owned sorting facilities.

The county does not operate recycling sorting facilities.

Sacco said increasing garbage collection services throughout unincorporated Pinellas would be time and cost-prohibitive. However, solid waste officials are considering mandating recycling throughout the county.

The first option would be for residents to contract directly with vendors. That is the current method for unincorporated areas, outside of East Lealman.

Pinellas officials could also implement a franchise model, where everyone pays a fee for one provider per area – regardless of whether they use the service. Stephanie Watson, recycling and outreach program manager, said the county’s solid waste department also plans to coordinate a standardized education campaign throughout the 24 local municipalities.

According to another meeting poll, 77% of participants favored the franchise model. Just 4% did not support a universal recycling ordinance.

“How can we get this going?” Sacco rhetorically asked. “That is the purpose of tonight. If we get enough participation and support to move this to the board for a recommendation, then they would look at making recycling mandatory for residential curbside across the board.”

Sacco will present public feedback to county commissioners at an August meeting. Residents can offer their thoughts online or at an in-person session July 19 from 6 until 8 p.m. at Harbor Hall in Palm Harbor.

Solid waste officials will conduct further community engagement following the commissioner’s recommendations.

For more information, visit the website here.





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  1. Avatar

    Nick Smith

    July 18, 2023at1:16 pm

    I know this is a little out of the box, But can Pinellas county go the route Belgium went with giving out checkins to any and all residents that would agree to rear them? Belgium gave up to three chickens with the stipulation of not killing them for food for two years; feeding food scraps to them that would normally go to landfills. We really need to look at what other countrys are doing and apply what works in order to get rid of the rest.

  2. Avatar

    Page Obenshain

    July 18, 2023at3:10 pm

    We will also run out of water and sewer capacity, so what’s new? Stop growth is our only answer.

  3. Avatar


    July 18, 2023at4:21 pm

    St Petersburg has one of the best resource recovery plants in the country – which means burning waste and turning it into electricity. Recycling you need more natural resources such as water and there are more toxic waste that go into the ground. Burning garbage is the best solution. This was a conversation 20 years ago and nothing was done cause too many people wanted recycling but did not understand the consequences, the cost and the long term harm so nothing was done. Here we are again – talking about recycling when the science behind it, the consequences, the long term damage and cost behind it are not clearly explained. I had two scientist try to explain this 20 years ago in a community center in St Pete and a 75 year old man came up and punched me saying to stop. He did not want to hear the negative about recycling. We need to support resource recovery to help our planet not be filled with chemicals left over from recycling.

  4. Avatar


    July 18, 2023at4:24 pm

    I live in a downtown apartment building with no options for recycling, which I think is ridiculous in an almost brand new building in St Pete.

  5. Avatar

    Lauren Lopez

    July 18, 2023at5:06 pm

    Quit building.

  6. Avatar


    July 18, 2023at8:22 pm

    Citizens against all the out of control growth that has been going on the past few years have been warning about consequences like this for a long time, but our leaders have ignored us. I am sure this will not detour their support for this building spree. They can’t approve new development fast enough and there will be more consequences for their lack of planning and our quality of life will continue to decline.

  7. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    July 18, 2023at9:20 pm

    I hardly recognize my city! As I drive around it looks like Miami or NYC. I live in one of the City’s oldest neighborhoods where now because 7 homes on my street are owned by a speculator CPA from Indiana, 7 families will never know the joys of home ownership. The city doesn’t care because that CPA is paying 12-15k in taxes for each property. Stop selling our city to speculators! My neighbors trying to save their table scraps for the community garden are blowing in the wind! We have lousy governance in SP!

  8. Avatar

    John Russell

    July 19, 2023at12:32 pm

    We all want to reduce waste. But lets be honest about recycling. Even Greenpeace understands the challenges. We can force folks to sort and drive diesel trucks to pick it up but how much gets recycled? Just keeping it out of the landfill doesn’t make it go away.

  9. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    July 19, 2023at3:32 pm

    Our leadership keeps allowing huge apartment complexes and condos to be built with an invisible welcome sign, come to St. Pete. Our city is overpriced for ‘regular’ people and our sewer system will be screaming next. STOP the GROWTH. We can no longer afford it.

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