Soaring recycling costs add to Sterling garbage bills

STERLING - City residents have been prepared for the annual 3% increase in its garbage rates, but an additional hike for recycling will kick in on Jan. 1.

In 2018, the city negotiated a hard-fought 10-year contract with its garbage hauler, Republic Services. The City Council took it down to the wire, and a special meeting was called to OK the deal just a day before the contract was ready to expire.

The current deal called for a 3.5% increase the first year and 3% annual hikes in the other 9 years. The annual increases are effective May 1, to coincide with the city’s new fiscal year.

Earlier this week, the council established the monthly garbage collection charge at $18.05. That includes a 35-cent increase per household for recycling that is effective Jan. 1. The decision came down to how much the city valued recycling services.

“With the recycling situation in China, it’s costing the haulers more to do recylables,” Mayor Skip Lee said. It became a matter of do we pay more or either reduce recycling or quit it altogether?”

The council discussed the situation, and was actually looking at a 70-cent increase a month for recycling, as proposed by the hauler. City Manager Scott Shumard asked the council how important the service was and how they planned to pay for it – either the city would eat it or it would be passed on to residents.

Alderman Joe Martin suggested the city split the difference with residents, which the rest of the council approved, bringing the January increase to 35 cents for customers. The city’s portion will come from solid waste fund reserves. The regular 3% increase will follow in May.

The recycling situation is likely to be revisited at budget time and residents could wind up with the other 35 cents. There are also concerns that the recycling costs will continue to soar, bringing more increases.

China has banned and restricted imports of some recyclables, including most paper and plastics. China has decided it no longer wants to be the dumping ground for the world’s waste and haulers have lost their market for unloading it.

“That leaves municipalities with two choices – pay higher rates to get rid of recyclables or put them in the landfill,” Shumard said.

City garbage contracts promise to get more complicated, primarily because of the escalating cost of recycling. The current value of materials doesn’t match what it costs the company to offer curbside recycling and those costs are being passed on to ratepayers.

“The recycling industry has changed quite a bit – landfill fees are going up and the bottom has dropped out of the materials market,” Lee said. “It’s good news that people are recycling, but someone has to pay for it.”

The prolonged negotiations also yielded a perk for customers in the current contract. It allows them to put out one bulk item, with the exclusion of electronics, each week at no extra charge.