As vendors across Oregon curb their recycling services, Milton-Freewater residents will no longer be able to recycle materials at their curbs.
Faced with losing its own recycling vendor, the Milton-Freewater City Council unanimously voted Monday to start its own recycling program, effectively ending curbside service in the city.
In an interview after the meeting, City Manager Linda Hall said the city needed to make the transition when Milton-Freewater’s recycling contractor — Horizon Project Inc. — told city officials that the organization could no longer afford to provide recycling services.
“They’re completely out of the recycling business,” she said.
Horizon Special Projects Director Ben Currin said the nonprofit has handled Milton-Freewater’s recyclables since the 1980s, employing disabled people to help sort through the material.
But in 2015, the state reached a settlement on a federal lawsuit that began phasing out “sheltered workshops,” a model that allowed employers to hire severely disabled people at below-market wages. With Horizon’s recycling program considered a sheltered workshop, the organization switched to hiring able-bodied workers to man their five-day-per-week curbside recycling service in July, raising labor costs.
The recycling market was also driving up expenses. Currin said Horizon used to be able to sell its recycled materials for $2,000 per month, but in recent years, had to start paying $200 a month to get them hauled away.
Horizon eventually realized that it wasn’t getting paid enough by the city to afford continuing the program and raising their fees would be untenable for the city. The organization announced it would end curbside recycling on March 2.
At the council meeting, Hall joked that the city would be able to recycle the paper bags staff breathed into as they tried to figure out Milton-Freewater’s next step.
Hall said later that staff solicited interest from local businesses about taking on the recycling contract, but didn’t have any takers.
Recycling is no longer considered a profitable enterprise due to changes in the international market.
While China used to be a top destination for recycled materials, the country banned the import of certain mixed paper and plastic grades and lowered the contamination standard. Recycling services that could once rely on China to accept their material are now scrambling to find domestic buyers or forgoing plastic recycling entirely.
Local communities haven’t been spared.
While Hermiston Sanitary Disposal is continuing to accept plastic, Pendleton Sanitary Service announced in December that it would no longer accept it.
Although Milton-Freewater couldn’t find a private vendor to cover its recycling, Hall said the city needed to continue offering recycling services to maintain its landfill permit with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. If the city’s permit was revoked, Hall said the city would have to begin hauling its trash to Washington or Arlington.
“That can get spendy,” she said.
She added that hauling trash and recycling elsewhere would require passing those costs on to customers, a difficult prospect for a city that literally has “low cost utilities” inscribed into its city seal.
So the city decided to start its own recycling program, which will go into effect March 6.
Public Works Superintendent Brian Steadman explained to the city council that the city would operate two collection sites instead of doing curbside recycling so that the city wouldn’t have to raise its $4.15 per month recycling fee.
The city bought a pick-up truck, a trailer, four hoppers and five 30-yard drop boxes for its two recycling depots, located at 13 S.E. Mill St. in the south part of town and 640 County Road on the west end.
Steadman said customers would be able to retain their recycling bins and use them to sort out their recyclables before taking them to one of the depots. Although Milton-Freewater won’t accept plastic, it will take newspaper, cardboard, glass, tin, aluminum, used motor oil, scrap metal and appliances.
Both facilities will be fenced and staffed during operating hours.
The County Road depot accepts all the listed materials and is open noon to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. The Mill facility doesn’t take motor oil, scrap metal and appliances and is open from noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Steadman said curbside pick-up is still available for the elderly and disabled as long as they submit a form and receive the approval of the city manager.
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