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Waste Management requested the higher rates to compensate for dramatic hikes to the cost of recycling.

Waste Management collection rates in Forest Grove will increase starting next month, following a Forest Grove City Council vote Monday evening, May 14.

The City Council elected to sign off on the company's request to raise rates for collecting both garbage and recycling, following the recommendation of city staff. Waste Management asked the city for the increase because, officials said, overhead costs for recycling have risen sharply over recent months.

Much of Oregon's recyclable material was sent to China, but the Chinese government announced last year it would restrict the materials it will accept. Waste Management says China officially stopped buying its recyclable material at the end of 2017.

Another destination for some recyclable material has been paper mills. But the American paper industry has also fallen on hard times, and several Pacific Northwest paper mills that accepted recyclable paper products have closed over the past several years.

The increase in costs as reported by Waste Management has been extreme — more than five-fold, the Forest Grove City Council heard Monday. Paul Downey, the city's administrative services director, said the company reported the average ton of recyclable material cost it about $18.39 to process last year. During the first three months of 2018, Downey said, Waste Management said it cost about $100.43 to process an average ton of recycling.

The council unanimously approved a flat increase of $1.55 per month for all residential roll carts, as well as a 6.2 percent hike for commercial collection services. Councilor Val Valfre was absent.

Forest Grove's increases are roughly in line with similar ones being approved or considered for approval across the region. Banks recently increased its monthly residential rates by $1.87, a memorandum to the Forest Grove City Council from City Manager Jesse VanderZanden noted.

The U.S. government has urged China to continue taking in scrap and other recyclable material, while Beijing has complained about tariffs imposed by the United States that affect Chinese imports. President Donald Trump has sent mixed messages on his administration's policy toward China, last month Tweeting that "trade wars are good, and easy to win" when a country like the United States is running a trade deficit, as it is with China.

The recycling market appears to be an early casualty of that escalating "trade war" between the United States and China, with industry news outlet Waste Dive opining last month, "The recent tit-for-tat on trade will almost certainly make any conversations around easing contamination standards less likely to happen. Instead of hoping to repair the damage with China, it may be time for U.S. recyclers to turn inward, focus on quality and find alternative markets."

In the short run, though, companies like Waste Management report that higher recycling costs are hitting them hard and leaving them with little choice but to pass along those costs to customers. According to Forest Grove city staff, the company is hoping that a "smaller rate increase at this time" can prevent "a much larger rate increase in the future," as VanderZanden's memo warned.

"If we wait until the end of the year, they might need a significantly larger increase," Downey said. "The recycling market's not expected to improve at all. In fact, it's still continuing to get worse."

Scott Kistler, a Forest Grove resident who spoke during Monday's public hearing, said increasing rates doesn't seem to address the problem.

"This recycling really is a misnomer, and we need to do something to change the way we're operating. We just take everything and throw it in the big barrel, and it's not really going where it needs to go," said Kistler, suggesting the community return to a dual-stream recycling model that asks residents to sort their own recycling rather than combining it. "To address this issue with a rate increase, it just doesn't seem right."

Waste Management's rates in Forest Grove last went up in 2016.

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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