City may raise garbage bills by 10 percent
Portlanders face an emergency 10 percent increase in their residential garbage bills — about $3 a month — largely to offset China's tough new standards for recyclable scrap imports.
Usually the city doesn't revise rates until a new budget year starts July 1. But city staff will urge the City Council to approve the higher rates effective May 1, said Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling program manager for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
That's because private garbage and recycling haulers regulated by the city are losing money due to China's new purity standards for mixed paper and plastics, which upended the economics of curbside recyclables.
Before, haulers could make money when they dropped off certain recyclables at regional recycling depots, which sort and bale the goods and resell them for export or to domestic manufacturers.
"Frequently, they've received money for recycling," Walker said.
"It used to be they got paid per ton," he said. "That in the past has lowered rates for customers."
But last year China announced what many say is an impossible-to-meet purity standard, requiring that mixed paper and plastics have no more than 0.5 percent foreign material by weight. If there's too much plastic of the wrong type, or extraneous materials such as address labels or shipping tape on paper, China has been rejecting bales and sending them back to the United States.
That drives up costs of sorting the recyclables at five Portland-area materials recovery facilities, which receive most of the material collected by haulers from Oregon curbsides. Those facilities also face increased costs to store bales until they can find buyers.
Ever since December, Walker said, it has cost more to handle recyclables at the materials recovery facilities than it would to dispose of them in a landfill.
Garbage and recycling haulers now routinely are paying more than $100 a ton to drop off residential recyclables collected curbside, Walker said. Those same haulers pay $95 a ton to drop off garbage bound for the Eastern Oregon landfill at local transfer centers.
In some cases, Metro and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality have approved sending recyclables to the landfill instead of reusing them. So far, only a tiny share of the Portland area's recyclables have gone to the landfill.
But the entire recycling system is in limbo here — and elsewhere around the world — until new uses and buyers are found for paper and plastic scraps.
For now, Metro and municipal garbage and recycling authorities in its jurisdiction don't want to change what residents put in their curbside bins, such as by limiting certain plastics and mixed paper, because it's hard to change habits and they might have to undo such changes as new markets are found.
Walker's bureau currently is studying documentation supplied by garbage and recycling haulers before finalizing the rate hike request. But he anticipates submitting a proposed rate hike to the Portland City Council for approval on April 18, so it can take effect May 1. Walker informed the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission about the proposed increases Tuesday night.
About $2 of the $3 tentative monthly rate increase stems from China's new demands, Walker said. Haulers also are facing higher fees from Metro, which runs garbage transfer centers, and rising costs for labor and fuel.
Portland isn't alone in planning emergency rate increases, Walker said. Similar discussions are under way for expedited rate increases in Gresham, Hillsboro, Washington and Clackamas counties, he said.
In contrast to Portland's city water and sewer bills, fees for garbage and recycling have not been rising faster than inflation.
The typical monthly bill is $29.25 in Portland for someone with a 35-gallon garbage can. That pays for haulers to come to their house weekly for recycling and yard-debris and food scraps pickup, and every other week for garbage.
Last year, the rate went up only 10 cents a month, Walker said.
Since 2011, the rates actually went down in two years, and remained flat in two other years, he said.
The city only regulates rates for single-family homes and plexes of up to four units. For those customers, the city awards franchises granting haulers monopolies to serve different areas of town, which is more efficient than having multiple haulers traverse the same streets.
There are competing companies serving apartments and commercial establishments, so the haulers set those rates.
Communities in Eastern and Southern Oregon are facing even higher costs to deal with recyclables, because they must be trucked to the state's five materials recovery facilities, all located in the metro area, in Portland, Hillsboro or Clackamas.
Since last September, the DEQ has issued 19 rulings allowing one-time or ongoing exceptions that allow recyclables to be buried in landfills. That resulted in 8,305 tons going to the landfill as of Feb. 28, or about 5 to 6 percent of all materials collected in curbside programs taking commingled materials. When factoring in other recyclables that are collected separately in Oregon, that amounts to less than 2 percent of the total recycling market, according to DEQ.
There's still a viable market for glass collected at Portland-area curbsides, which goes to a big glass-making plant near Portland International Airport, Walker noted. Locally collected cardboard goes to Oregon paper mills to make new boxes and grocery bags. Metals are used by a variety of U.S. manufacturers. Trex still uses plastic produce bags collected at local groceries like Fred Meyer to make plastic decking and park benches.
Some other nations in Asia have stepped up their purchases of recyclables in the wake of China's new practices. And some experts predict China ultimately will ease up on its paper scrap standard, if it can't get enough material to make cardboard to ship Nike shoes, Walmart products and other manufactured goods back to the United States and other markets.
But others in the domestic recycling field are trying to figure out new markets. On Wednesday, the National Recycling Coalition is holding an all-day workshop on the issue here in Portland, in what will be the first of four such national meetings. More than 100 people have registered for the event at the Portland Sheraton hotel, Walker said.
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To see the list of recyclables approved to go to the landfill: oregon.gov/deq/FilterDocs/mm-disposalconcurr.pdf