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It's the kind of success story the Hernando County Commission would like to hear more often.
After years of tiptoeing around the issue of curbside recycling because they feared it would be unpopular with residents, commissioners decided about a year ago to forge ahead with a pilot program in Spring Hill. The commission put up enough money to provide residents who live in ZIP Code 34608 with bins to recycle newspapers, cardboard, plastic and aluminum. Waste Management Inc., which has the hauling contract for that mandatory garbage pickup area, was hired to make the once-a-week collections.
The commission had hoped that between 30 and 35 percent of the homes in the area would participate. The recycling trucks started rolling last May.
Today, the program has exceeded expectations, boasting an average participation rate of 43 percent. In eight months, more than 1,000 tons of recyclables were collected, which equates to almost a quarter-ton per household.
The tangible result of residents' acceptance of the pilot program is more available space at the Northwest Landfill. Lengthening the life of that resource should always be a priority for the commission, and the 1,000 tons equates to $53,000 (at current tipping fees) of garbage not being deposited there.
But the intangible, and arguably greater, success is the desire and willingness of residents to do the right thing for the environment. It is evident that Hernando County residents recognize the long-term benefits of recycling. Their outlook is both progressive and conscientious, and it should send a clear signal to the commission that the recycling program is ripe for expansion.
Assistant county utilities director Stephanie Burkhardt, who has admirably shepherded the recycling program to this point, is recommending that the commission include residents in ZIP Code 34609. That would add thousands of homes. Assuming that 43 percent of the residents in the 34609 ZIP code participate, more than 1,000 tons would be recycled.
It also would require two more employees, Burkhardt says, but the sale of the increased recyclables would cover their salaries and benefits, making it a break-even proposition.
However, if the commission is going to expand the program, or even maintain the status quo, it must come up with a way to pay for it. That means the commission must either set aside money from the general fund to pay for it or pass the cost to residents. Burkhardt estimates that amount would be about $1.75 per month per homeowner, depending on how the county renegotiates its contract with Waste Management Inc. That is a nominal fee for the labor-intensive service being provided, and one that should not alarm residents.
It might be wiser for the commission to foot the bill for this incremental expansion. If interest in the program is still strong and exceeds expectations, then it may be time for the commission to consider asking all voters in Spring Hill's mandatory trash collection area, through a referendum on the 2004 general election ballot, whether they are willing to pay a few pennies a day for the convenience of curbside recycling.
The commissioners should not squander the momentum this valuable and farsighted program has gathered. They are obligated to stay focused on the long-term advantages to the environment and to continue efforts to educate residents about the increasing need to be less wasteful.
Gradually expanding the recycling program is a fundamental step in that direction.