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Recycling market driving area surge in garbage rates

Jeff Himler
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A Republic Services garbage truck collects trash along South Fifth Street in Youngwood on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.
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A Republic Services garbage truck collects trash along South Fifth Street in Youngwood on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.
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Waste Management employee Wayne Tremale of North Huntingdon empties a refuse bin into his garbage truck Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, in a parking lot next to St. Clair Park in Greensburg.
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A Waste Management truck stops to empty a refuse bin Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, in a parking lot next to St. Clair Park in Greensburg.

Residents in numerous communities across Southwestern Pennsylvania experienced sticker shock this year when they placed their trash and recyclables at the curb to be hauled away.

Refuse collection rates in some municipalities have soared anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent, and industry officials say a key factor in driving up fees is a shrinking market for the recyclables that once helped offset costs — triggered by China’s tightened limit on accepting plastic waste .

“It’s safe to say China’s decision to impose a restriction on the import of recyclables has certainly had an impact on our industry,” says Brandon Wright, a spokesman for the 400-member National Waste and Recycling Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

“Our members have had to make adjustments to contracts with clients and customers,” Wright says. “China was roughly 40 percent of our market. We lost that, and other countries are accepting (recyclables), but not at the rate we would like.”

The issue has led to rate increases for residential customers across the country, from Long Beach, Calif. , and Portland, Ore. , to Memphis, Tenn. , and the Atlanta area to Doylestown, Pa. — where some customers last year reported seeing rates increase 400 percent.

Youngwood this year saw one of the steepest garbage and recycling rate increases in the area. The quarterly residential fee for weekly pickup by Republic Services, based locally in Scottdale, increased 62 percent — from $35.10, under a contract that ended last year, to $57. A competing bidder proposed a quarterly rate of $63 to serve the community’s roughly 1,200 households.

“We’ve had mixed comments, pros and cons,” Scott Palmquist, borough council president, said of the new agreement with Republic, which council approved 6-1. “There are some people who are concerned about the increase,” while others are “fine with it.”

“Some people like the idea of a tote,” he said of a wheeled 96-gallon trash container now provided by the hauler. “Some people find it too big.”

Among the latter is Lloyd Crago, the Youngwood councilman who cast the sole vote against the new contract. He said he is concerned the totes will be difficult for many residents to move once filled with garbage.

“I live on a private lane and have to haul it to the end of the lane,” he said.

According to Palmquist, Youngwood got a break on its previous three-year refuse agreement, which held the rate at $35.10 throughout. Republic discovered that the flat rate was a mistake for the latter years of the agreement, but the borough held the hauler to its bid, Palmquist said.

Penn Hills, which also is served by Republic, saw its overall cost for hauling increase by 43 percent to nearly $10.4 million for a three-year contract that began this year. Municipal officials cited recycling costs as a factor in the hike, which, in turn, contributed to a $1.4 million budget shortfall. The local property tax was increased about 15 percent to help bridge that funding gap.

New Stanton’s quarterly rate for garbage and recycling collection by Republic went up this year by about 30 percent, to $57.54. “We added e-waste (recycling), which we didn’t have in the last contract,” borough manager Jeff McLaughlin said.

Latrobe’s quarterly residential collection rates increased an average of 26 percent in January — to $81 for those who use a tote — under a five-year contract with Republic. The cost could have been higher without using a reverse-auction bidding process, City Manager Wayne Jones said.

Republic’s new contracts have removed glass containers and several categories of plastic — Nos. 3-7, including shrink wrap, fast-food containers and plastic foam — from items it will handle for recycling.

Some communities serviced by Waste Management, including 19 in Allegheny County’s South Hills, have experienced similar changes in their recycling guidelines.

“The world of recycling has changed,” said John McGoran, Republic Services’ manager of municipal services. He noted plastics Nos. 3 through 7 account for a minimal portion of the recycling stream, while “the economics really don’t work for glass. In most cases, it’s cheaper using virgin versus recycled material.”

McGoran declined to comment about his company’s specific contracts with area communities but agreed that markets for recyclables are creating challenges for Republic and for the industry, as is a tight labor market.

A spokeswoman for Waste Management did not return calls seeking comment.

Freeport switched to Waste Management for a new garbage collection contract taking effect this year for the town’s 856 residential units. Council President John Mazurowski acknowledged the new agreement came with “a significant increase” in the monthly customer fee — from $17 to $21, or a little more than 23 percent.

But, he said, “We’ve added some value. We’ve taken on a hazardous materials and e-waste recycling program through Waste Management. It cost us a little bit extra, but we think it’s going to be a good addition for the residents.”

In Harrison, which switched to Waste Management as its hauler last year, residents saw a 52 percent garbage rate hike , from $41.40 to $63 per quarter.

In addition to garbage truck drivers being in short supply, Wright said companies also face increased costs for processing contaminated recyclable items, a problem that helped trigger China’s restrictions on imports.

On average, about 25 percent of recyclable items left by residents for curbside pickup are contaminated — with food or plastic bags that can get tangled in equipment, Wright said. Added costs may be passed back to residents if a recycling company has to slow down a processing line or hire extra workers to help staff it, he noted.

Greensburg bucked the trend of steep increases when it approved a four-year refuse hauling contract with Waste Management that began last year. During that first year, the monthly rate for each of about 5,400 residential units actually dropped by a nickel, to $16.44. It will increase 6 percent, to $17.45, by 2021, the final year of the agreement.

“I think they wanted to keep us as an account,” city administrator Kelsye Milliron said.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter @jhimler_news.