County gives approval to negotiate recycling rate increase

Waste Connections says China’s ban on U.S. exports of recycled goods is making it much more expensive for them to do business

CLARK COUNTY — There was a time that recycling was free. For a long time it has been much less expensive than just throwing stuff away, as the county and state hoped to encourage people to recycle, rather than send stuff to a landfill.

Much of that recycled waste, for decades, was purchased by China. Several years ago that ended when China, fed up by contamination that was finding its way into the shipments of recycled goods, decided to stop taking any.

A Waste Connections truck collects garbage in Clark County. Image courtesy Waste Connections, Southwest Washington
A Waste Connections truck collects garbage in Clark County. Image courtesy Waste Connections, Southwest Washington

That was a major blow to the recycling industry, and a wake-up call that more needed to be done to address the problem. According to Waste Connections of Southwest Washington, that meant hiring more people, and slowing down the machines that sort through the recycled materials, in an effort to pull out plastics, food waste, and other things that shouldn’t have ended up in those blue bins.

“What we have noticed, and what we’ve learned through contamination studies, is that when we are in doubt we assume that it is best to put it in the recycling bin,” said Travis Dutton, solid waste program manager for Clark County Public Health at this week’s council meeting. “That ends up contaminating and reducing the value of the materials that we can collect and process.”

The other issue, adds Dutton, is that materials coming into people’s homes have changed more quickly than the technologies to recycle them. It has made getting information to customers about what can and can’t go in the recycling bin more difficult.

All of that, says Waste Connections, has cut $4 million out of their bottom line in the last two years. As such, they wanted to renegotiate their contract with the county in order to add an additional charge aimed at the extra cost of doing business now with China’s restrictions and the crush that has put on domestic recyclers.

“We are the only county in which these recycling companies do not go through a formal rate review with the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC),” said Dutton, “however in all of these other areas that are under the UTC we feel comfortable that our potential increase of $2 would be in line with what’s happening around the rest of the state.”

Statewide, recyclers have implemented similar increases, from $1.59 increase in Whitman County, to an increase of up to $5.26 per month in Snohomish County. The final amount for Clark County hasn’t been determined, but Waste Connections has proposed an increase of $2.44 per household for recycling.

The council voted unanimously, if reluctantly, on Tuesday to allow the negotiation to move forward.

“I’ve anticipated, whatever the final rate is, bringing that back before the council,” said County Manager Shawn Henessee. “It is, at its onset, fundamentally a policy decision for the council as far as how to go forward.”

Waste Connections has pledged to do a deeper study into potential cost-cutting measures, in addition to better outreach and education for consumers on what can go in the blue bin.

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