Michael Switzer had never recycled.
But that changed last fall when he saw the new recycling bins on wheels that Harrison County provided him with under a new contract with the Utility Authority.
“First of all, I NEVER had done any recycling with Waste Pro (the previous contractor) because who wanted to put a small amount in a bin and then tote that little bin to the curb,” he wrote in an email. “Now, that Team Waste recycle cart is a different story: So much larger, pictures/words on top of the cart lid shows what can be recycled.”
He said he puts it in the kitchen next to the counter at his home on John Clark Road, west of Gulfport, and washes the empty cans and lids to eliminate odors before he recycles them.
The contract that brought Switzer a 35-gallon recycling bin on wheels also severed the city of Gulfport from the rest of the county. It was a messy split.
Gulfport negotiated its own contract with Waste Pro, which offers recycling pickup every other week and garbage pickup twice a week. It uses wheeled bins for garbage and smaller bins for recyclables. Team Waste picks up recyclables and garbage in the rest of the cities and the unincorporated areas of the county once a week.
A little southeast of Switzer, a longtime fan of recycling on Washington Avenue isn’t as happy with the new service. Waste Pro got the contract for Gulfport after the city broke with Harrison County Utility Authority after it switched to Team Waste.
Herbert Holter carries four of those smaller blue bins to the curb every other week to recycle. He’s 72 and he’d love to have a bin on wheels, but Waste Pro told him it has not plans to offer them. The company picks up garbage in Gulfport twice a week and runs recycling routes every other week.
“It makes it difficult,” he said. “Paper blows out of them. I pick up paper every week after the truck is gone.”
They are in the minority. The overwhelming majority of Harrison County residents don’t recycle, data shows, whether they have big bins or smaller ones.
Holter said people in his neighbor sure aren’t big on recycling. He said he knows of one other household that recycles regularly.
“I do it because I think it is really important,” he said. “Especially the plastic.”
The argument for recycling
Environmentalists don’t like plastic because it doesn’t degrade. There are islands of it in the oceans, and parking lots and roads littered with it up and down the Coast. Plastic bottles and bags clog ditches and the water that overflows from them during heavy rains eats away at roads. Recycling keeps tons of trash out of landfills, which extends the lives of the facilities few people would want in their neighborhoods. It also holds down costs because haulers don’t have to pay the dumping charge, which is passed in garbage fees paid by households using the service.
The number of homes that used curbside recycling more than doubled in the first three months of the new garbage and recycling contract that covers all of Harrison County except Gulfport, according to a report from the HCUA, which oversees the contract.
“HCUA is thrilled with the response by the citizens of Harrison County to embrace the importance of the recycling program,” Executive Director Donald Scharr wrote in the report. “While this is a great start, our goal is to continue to build on this momentum and to sustain the recycling efforts for years to come.”
City, county makes gains
Team Waste, the company HCUA contracted to collect household garbage and recyclables, picked up 844 tons of recyclable material, which kept it out of landfills and saved the authority $13,000 in disposal costs.
Even though it serves fewer households, 43,454, with the exit of Gulfport, significantly more households took part in recycling. HCUA estimates 14,775 homes recycled, about 34 percent of the homes it served. When it had the contract for the whole county, HCUA served 67,987 households and 6,800 of them recycled.
“This is a 240 percent increase in the customer recycle participation rate,” said Scharr. “It’s exciting.”
In Gulfport, recycling got off to a slower start but has steadily increased, according to data provided to the city by Waste Pro. By December, 15 percent of the households were recycling, compared to 7 percent in November, the first month measured. That month, Waste Pro collected 41 tons of recycled material and 2,383 tons of garbage. In December, it picked up 41 tons of recyclables and 2,327 tons of garbage. By January, the numbers were 42 tons for recyclables and 2,440 tons of garbage.
Room for improvement
Scharr said households recycled an average of almost 13 pounds a month, an increase of more than 76 percent over the previous five-year average. There is no year-to-year comparison for Gulfport because the city was part of the HCUA contract last year.
HCUA is able to collect a lot more information about recycling habits because the cans Team Waste uses are equipped with Radio Frequency Identification chips that can help it pinpoint areas where recycling is weak. HCUA will try to improve recycling in those areas with education and outreach programs, Scharr said. It also deployed a social media campaign to teach its customers the value of recycling.
Nationally, Scharr’s report said, up to 25 percent of all solid waste is recycled. HCUA’s homes recycled just 6 percent. The rest of the country averages about 17 pounds of recyclables a month; Harrsion County averages 12.95 pounds.
“We are making tremendous strides, but we have room for additional improvements,” he said. “HCUA has set the target of 50 percent customer participation in the recycling program,” he said. “While ambitious, HCUA believes that through public education, outreach and communication that this is an achievable goal.”