94% of county households would be able to get all of their garbage into 95-gallon container, Solid Waste Department manager reports to commissioners, noting results of spring survey

Commissioners voice support for elimination of plastic bags for yard waste, to reduce costs at landfill

A survey this spring of Sarasota County’s Solid Waste Department customers found that 94% of them would be able to get all of their weekly garbage into a 95-gallon container, Brian Usher, director of that department, told the Sarasota County commissioners during a July 13 presentation.

Staff used illustrations to help customers provide the most accurate answers to that question, he said.

By the start of the 2025 fiscal year — Oct. 1, 2024 — Sarasota County staff will have to have in place a new contract with a provider for the collections of garbage, recyclables and solid waste, Usher reminded the commissioners during their regular meeting on July 13. The survey was part of staff’s efforts to craft that new contract, he said.

Staff is considering a switch to automated garbage collection in carts, similar to its move a couple of years ago to single-stream recycling, Usher noted.

He hopes to present a proposed new waste collections agreement to the commissioners in April 2023, he added, to ensure a smooth transition.

“We need to be able to provide options to customers going forward,” Usher pointed out. Moreover, he said, staff will need “an aggressive outreach campaign” in an effort to educate customers about any changes that will be part of the new contract.

Usher also raised the potential of eliminating the use of plastic garbage bags for yard waste, to reduce county expenses. Commissioners voiced support for that idea. That would save the county money, Usher explained, as workers at the landfill have to remove the materials from those bags.

Commissioner Michael Moran said he understood that Waste Management had sought a big jump in its payments from the county for handling all of the solid waste collections in the 2023 fiscal year.

“They did make an extraordinary rate request,” Usher replied. They sought a 10.7% increase, related to the Consumer Price Index, he added. Staff made it clear to Waste Management that the department would hold firm on the 5% cap for increases that is in the existing contract.

During an Open to the Public comment period that morning, Tim Bowers, the new Waste Management representative for the region, who is based in Venice, offered to be a resource for the commissioners as plans proceed for a new bid package to be released.

“Bid rates are going up and up and up,” Bowers pointed out. The top three reasons, Bowers said, are the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; inflation, especially in regard to fuel prices; and a nationwide shortage of drivers who have the certification to handle waste haulers’ equipment.

That shortage across the country adds up to 80,000 drivers, Bowers noted.

Federal Express, UPS and Amazon are among the companies also affected, he said, so waste collection companies are having to compete with them.

Then Bowers provided an overview of rates in recent new waste collection contracts in Southwest Florida.

“Most recently,” he said, when Hillsborough County sought bids this year, its staff saw rates go up from the $6 to $12 range to the $17 to $22 range.

In 2020, Charlotte County Government found that the rates for single-family home service doubled, he continued.

Last year, he added, in Brevard County, the rates jumped 40% to 80%.

“Waste Management’s been with [Sarasota] County for 18 years,” Bowers pointed out. “We want to continue that relationship.”

More details about survey responses

The Solid Waste Department survey was open from March 28 to May 6, Usher told the commissioners.

Altogether, 1,746 responses came in, with the vast majority — 1,729 — from residential customers, according to a slide Usher showed the commissioners.

In providing more details from the results, Usher noted that, for the 6% of customers who said they generated more trash each week than a 95-gallon container could hold, the survey provided a follow-up question about how they would prefer to manage that additional waste.

Most of those respondents — 38% — indicated their preference would be to purchase an additional container, Usher said. None of them marked the option indicating they would be happy to transport the overage themselves to the Central County Landfill, the slide showed.

However, 31% called for a limited number of free collections for additional items, the slide said.

Another slide included the survey responses to a question about how often customers in single-family households place their county recycling cart at the curb. “Weekly” was the answer from 82% of respondents, the slide said; 12% marked the “Every other week” option, while 4% replied that they set out the container once a month.

During his presentation of his proposed 2023 fiscal year budget to the commissioners — on June 24 — Usher reported of recyclables, “We’re falling slightly behind where we were last year,” which could be a factor of the COVID-19 pandemic, he pointed out.

A slide he included in his budget presentation said that his staff’s target is to collect 15,750 tons of recyclables each year. One goal is to keep the materials out of the landfill, which, in turns, extends the life of that facility.

In the 2018 fiscal year, Usher noted, the county collected more than 27,000 tons of recyclables, which brought in revenue of approximately $360,000.

Following an early 2020 switch to single-stream recycling — putting all of the items into a solitary container instead of separating paper products from other materials — the county collected 22,644 tons in the 2021 fiscal year, Usher’s slide noted.

So far this year, he said, the county has collected about 20,000 tons, which has generated $231,000.

The plastic bag issue

Yet another question in the survey this spring regarded the use of plastic bags to hold yard waste, Usher continued on July 13.

The related slide explained that the county has to pay for the manual emptying of the yard waste out of those bags at the landfill before the materials can be processed for mulch or composting purposes. In the 2021 fiscal year, the slide added, “[T]he equivalent of more than 6.4 million 39-gallon, heavy-duty plastic garbage bags of yard waste were opened by hand. This fiscal year — which ends on Sept. 30 — staff anticipates a total expanse of more than $300,000 for that manual labor.

Therefore, the survey asked whether customers would support the elimination of plastic bags and, instead, be willing to bundle yard waste or use paper bags or containers for it.

The responses showed that 90% of customers would be willing to forgo the use of plastic bags, Usher pointed out.

All told, he said, 80% of single-family homes in the unincorporated areas of the county that his department serves would not be affected by a prohibition on plastic-bag use, as they already “prepare it in other methods.”

However, he added, 92% of customers in residential multi-family housing — such as condominiums — would be affected.

When asked if people would pay the county more to continue using the plastic bags, Usher noted, 87% of the respondents said they would not.

Chair Alan Maio called that “good thinking” about the elimination of plastic bags. Then Maio explained that that idea was launched when Commission Vice Chair Ron Cutsinger — as a newly elected board member in 2020 — took a tour of the operations of the Solid Waste Department and “was gagging at the fact that all those plastic bags had to be manually ripped open to make sure somebody wasn’t putting a motor or something [such as] paint cans … in [the bags].”

“I’m going to vote for this,” Maio said of the proposal. Nonetheless, he told Usher, his wife is part of the 10% of customers who would like to keep using plastic bags.

Usher replied that he plans to bring a formal proposal to the commissioners at a later date, regarding the elimination of the use of the plastic bags.

When Maio asked about the timeline for that, Usher said he plans to do so in the latter part of November. That proposal will be part of a broader ordinance for the commissioners’ consideration, Usher added.

The county’s new agreement for operations at the landfill has an incentive for getting rid of those bags, Usher explained. “We were going to see an $8 per ton increase in processing yard waste in plastic bags.”

“Without [the bags], it would go down to $4 [a ton]?” Cutsinger asked.

“Correct,” Usher responded.

“This is labor-intensive,” Cutsinger said of the need to open all of the yard waste bags.

Bulk items questions and answers

Another slide explained that county staff is considering switching to an automated system for the collection of garbage in carts similar to those used in the recycling program. When asked which options customers found of interest, if that switch went into effect, 44% responded that they would prefer having a limited number of free collections each year, with another 38% indicating their preference for regularly scheduled monthly collections. Yet another 10% opted for scheduling pickups and paying for them as needed.

Usher did point out to the commissioners that changing to an automated collection system with carts “changes how bulk items are collected, such as furniture and appliances.”

In response to a question about how often customers put out such items at the curb, the majority — 43% — marked “Once a year.” Another 20% indicated “Twice a year,” while 13% replied “Once a quarter.”

“Something that really stood out to us,” Usher noted, was the fact that most customers in residential multi-family housing have no designated area to use in putting out bulk items. Therefore, he continued, staff members were “motivated to reach out to [managers of such complexes],” to start discussions about how waste collections will be handled at those locations in the future.

Then Usher ran down a list that he called the “key takeaways” from the survey:

  • Automated collection carts for garbage, which could hold up to 95 gallons, “would provide adequate capacity for the disposal needs of most single-family homes.
  • Sarasota County residents continue to be avid recyclers,” but weekly service is sufficient for them.
  • “Residents support eliminating plastic bags from the yard waste stream.
  • “Most respondents would like to continue having free collection for bulk, oversize or specialty items (either limited number or regularly scheduled).”