Everything we know about the future of recycling in Portage County

Image of a recycling bin
Recycling in Portage County. Photo by Sigmund

In 2018, China banned the purchase of U.S. recyclables after years of warning there was too much garbage interspersed with the recycling. The recycling industry collapsed, having relied heavily on the sale of materials to offset expenses.

The effects have reached Portage County, where the Solid Waste Recycling District — which had once received an annual rebate of $315,000 from the sale of materials — needed a new way to cover its bills. 

The solution Director Bill Steiner proposed earlier this year to the 14 municipalities using its curbside pickup services was to double rates and, in some municipalities, cut back service from weekly to biweekly pickup. Stabilizing the rate at $5.50 per household per month across the entire county would allow the program to cover increased processing costs and salaries for drivers. 

The first phase of standardizing the rate began Thursday, when the new pricing went into effect for five communities — Atwater, Brimfield, Mantua Township, the city of Ravenna and Shalersville. (Franklin Township’s contract is higher than the standard $5.50 rate at $7.33 per household month.)

The remaining communities that use curbside recycling — Aurora, Kent, Hiram village, and the townships of Hiram, Ravenna, Rootstown, and Suffield — will have to decide in the coming months or years, depending on when their contract is up, if they too would like to continue service at the new rate, seek quotes from a private company, or quit recycling services altogether.

In addition to providing curbside recycling, the county also provides drop-off recycling service to Nelson, Paris, Charlestown, Edinburg, Palmyra and Randolph townships. Those communities are currently paying the county around $23,000 combined for the service, and the county foots the rest of the $150,000 bill. 

Some communities, like Freedom Township and the village of Garrettsville, voted to discontinue the drop-off service in July 2020 and February 2021, mostly because of the additional costs they were forced to shoulder when residents repeatedly dumped non-recyclable materials illegally. 

When the Freedom Township trustees approached the county to discuss switching to curbside service, they were told the district couldn’t afford to provide that service at the time, Trustee John Zizka said. Freedom is currently without recycling service. 

In the coming weeks, leaders in the city of Ravenna, Rootstown, Streetsboro and Suffield will vote on the future of their recycling programs. Streetsboro will not continue the county recycling program. Council members will instead vote on whether to accept a bid from a private company, Kimble, which will provide both trash and recycling services to residents. 

Ravenna City Council members and Rootstown and Suffield township trustees will vote to determine whether or not they will raise their rate. 

Since the rate increase must be mutually agreed upon by the county and municipality, leaders can reject the rate increase — but if they do so, they risk the county deciding to terminate the contract. 

Why is the curbside pickup rate going up?

When the Portage County Recycling District negotiated its contract with Greenstar Recycling in Akron eight years ago, the recycling industry was strong enough that Portage County earned revenue for materials recycled. 

At that point, the county paid Greenstar $57 per ton to process its recycling but received a rebate of $315,000 from the sale of materials to help offset costs, Steiner told Ravenna City Council members in March. 

Then, in 2018, the recycling market collapsed, which experts attributed primarily to high levels of contamination in the recycling stream, which made recycling more costly domestically and impossible internationally. 

While the United States is developing domestic outlets that can process recycled materials, “a paper mill doesn’t just go up in a long weekend,” Steiner told the Ravenna council members. For instance, a paper mill that can process 400,000 tons of cardboard per year recently went online near Dayton, but it takes time to work through the backlog of recycled materials plus the influx of cardboard from online retail orders that became popular during the pandemic. 

After the markets went away, Steiner said, the processing cost rose. On Nov. 1, it went up to $77 per ton, and he expects it will soon increase again to $93 per ton. Steiner doubts that rebates will ever come back, but he believes the Portage recycling district will be able to break even if municipalities agree to go to biweekly curbside pickup with a standardized rate of $5.50 per household per month. 

Currently, “rates are all over the place throughout the county, depending upon when we signed the contract, and we’ve found through the years that has hurt us because what was a good contract maybe three years ago could be our worst contract [now],” Steiner told Ravenna council members. 

For instance, the city of Kent is currently contracted to receive weekly service for $5.83 per household per month. The rate will increase to $6.05 in 2022 and $6.19 when the contract expires in 2023. 

“We did a great job for years holding the line on rate increases because we did count on revenue from the sale of recyclables. But it was like the perfect storm — you had the [collapse of the] foreign market system here, then the global pandemic,” Steiner said. “Normally in the past, historically, every five years, there would be a shakeout in the market where prices would drop and then they would come back, and things would be good again. This time, the market just completely disappeared.”

The increased rate will also cover the rising cost of diesel fuel and drivers’ wages. “Rates will increase, whether it’s us or a private hauler,” Steiner predicted. “We’re all faced with the same issue: lack of drivers. There’s well over 100,000 open jobs across the nation for CDL drivers, and we’re all scrambling for the same individuals.” 

The benefit of sticking with the county, for municipalities, Steiner said, is that residents would be supporting jobs for Portage County residents. “We’re a Portage County entity, and we keep our money within the county. You go somewhere else, and you’re taking money outside the county.”

Steiner’s goal is to lock in the $5.50 rate as long as possible, but it isn’t guaranteed. Residents can help hold the rate steady by keeping non-recyclable items out of the recycling carts so the district can get a good price from the processor. 

“Basically it’s just as easy as following the instructions on the top or side of the container. You put those materials in; we’re going to be okay. But if you decide to put tires or stuff that doesn’t belong in there in the containers, everyone’s going to have to pay the price.”

Are municipalities required to offer recycling? 

Some municipality leaders said they’re not sure their community can go without a recycling program because they’re under the impression that the EPA mandates local governments offer one. But it seems that some communities like Freedom and Garrettsville have been able to discontinue their recycling programs without consequence. 

When The Portager reached out to the Ohio EPA for clarification, a spokesperson replied, “Ohio EPA and local solid waste management districts are responsible for implementing statewide waste reduction, recycling, and litter prevention programs. An important part of this duty is to implement Ohio’s Solid Waste Management Plan (which is required by state law) and encourage Ohioans to reduce waste, recycle materials, and buy recycled-content products.”

The Portager asked the spokesperson to clarify if municipalities are legally obligated or just encouraged to run recycling programs. 

The representative replied, “Ohio administrative rules require solid waste management districts to include recycling as part of their district plan.”

“It’s a mandatory thing for the district to make sure that we provide the access, and in each county, either a private company does, or we’ve been doing [it],” Steiner said. 

Ravenna will likely stay with the county

Ravenna City Council will vote on whether to accept the $5.50 rate increase on Tuesday, July 6, said Council President Andrew Kluge. 

The increase must be mutually agreed upon by the city and county, and if council votes no, there is a chance the commissioners will consider cancelling Ravenna’s service, as they did last year with Brimfield. (Brimfield has since agreed to the $5.50 rate, Stiener said.)

Kluge said residents should know the rate they see on their bill won’t be $5.50, since the line item for recycling also includes wages for the service department, bags for leaf pickup (which cost the city $17,000 annually), and the cost of spring clean up, which Ravenna usually contracts out to a private company. 

The rate the city is currently charging residents in that line item is not enough to cover service department salaries, so the rate will increase on the city end as well. “We’re not sure what that end rate will be, but we are guessing that it will be around $8 or $10,” Kluge said. 

Ravenna Service Director Kay Dubinsky declined to tell The Portager what amount would be required to fully cover the salaries of employees. That is something they plan to discuss on Monday, July 5 and vote on the following day, she said. 

“Ultimately, these decisions are made by city council. I mean, we give our recommendations, but the bottom line is, council says yes or no,” Dubinsky said. 

In March, council had discussed requesting proposals from other vendors for both trash and recycling to do their due diligence and see if they could save money for residents, Kluge said. While the city didn’t put out official requests for proposals, Kluge spoke with council members in Euclid and Mayfield Heights who use Kimble for trash and recycling. 

Euclid has contracted with Kimble for 10 years, currently pays $15 for both trash and recycling pickup, and has been happy with the service overall  — although recently, a truck driver shortage left trash piling up on curbs on Memorial Day weekend. 

The feedback Kluge heard from the overwhelming majority of residents, he said, was that they didn’t want to lose the option to choose their trash hauler and feared they would if the council discontinued its recycling contract with the county. They were also concerned the quality of service would go down with Kimble or another private hauler.

After hearing that feedback, Kluge said council will most likely vote to stay with the county and adopt the $5.50 rate. Mayor Frank Semen and Dubinsky are in favor of it. 

One drawback of recycling with the county is that there’s no end date for the county contract and no long-term pricing schedule, which means that rates could change at any time, he said.

Streetsboro to switch to Kimble

Streetsboro leadership decided to end its recycling contract with the county when Steiner informed council they would no longer be able to deliver the service they had agreed to at a cost they had agreed to, said Streetsboro Mayor Glenn Broska. 

“We were fully committed to using Portage County recycling for the remainder of the contract [through 2023],” said Council President Jon Hannan, but “if we wanted to stay with them, then recycling would be moved to biweekly service, and the rate would probably double.” 

At that point, the city decided to put out requests for proposals for trash and recycling service, and Kimble’s bid came back the lowest. On July 16, council members will vote whether to accept the five-year contract with Kimble, the provider currently contracted to haul Streetsboro’s trash. 

The new contract would increase the cost of recycling for residents from $42 to $59.52 per year — a $17.52 increase. Monthly, the cost will start at $4.96 and increase between $0.20 and $0.30 for the duration of the contract, ending at $6.03 the fifth year. 

Broska said an increase of $1.07 over five years seems “pretty reasonable” to him. 

During a June 14 meeting, council members Justin Ring and Julie Field protested making a recycling program with a private provider mandatory. “I’m completely against a government entity forcing anybody to buy a product from a private company. I won’t support that,” Ring said. 

Currently an ordinance requires every Streetsboro resident to participate in recycling. A previous city council passed the ordinance, reasoning that mandating that all residents to participate drives down the price. 

“What are we going to tell our residents next? You have to go to Giant Eagle and buy broccoli once a week?” Ring said. 

Field asked the representative from Waste Management present at the meeting if he would consider bidding on a municipality that doesn’t make its recycling program mandatory for all residents. The representative said his company and the other companies he knows of only serve cities where recycling is mandatory. 

If council were to vote no on June 14, Broska said he believes “that would be the end of recycling” in Streetsboro, since organizing a trash drop-off program hasn’t worked well for other communities. 

“Council has debated [whether it is fair to make recycling mandatory], and I agree — I am not a fan of having something imposed on us. But the ends justify the means,” Groska said. 

“We would have a city-wide recycling program that is convenient for the residents to use, and it will be at a reasonable cost. And unfortunately if [residents] choose not to recycle, they will still be charged for it.” 

Hannan said he believes Kimble would take over recycling services 30 days after council agrees to the contract. Steiner said he has been told Kimble can’t assume recycling in Streetsboro until Oct. 1, but he’s asked the city to try to get Kimble to take that over sooner because “we want to redeploy that truck elsewhere.”

All or nothing for Suffield

Trustees in Suffield Township will vote on whether to keep the $5.50 rate at their meeting on June 13. 

Suffield Trustee Jeff Eldreth said the township has a high participation rate of 85%, so “we’re kind of torn” between keeping the recycling program and cancelling it.

The way Eldreth sees it, “if you keep getting an increase, eventually you price yourself out of the market.”

He said the township’s options are to either stay with the county and pay for the service or discontinue recycling altogether. Eldreth doesn’t want to hire a private hauler to do both trash and recycling because “all that does is eliminate the little guy. I would personally vote against that.”

Eldreth said it seems like the recycling industry is in trouble: 

“You can’t provide a service for $2.30 and then all of a sudden go, ‘Well, I’m going to double your rate because the business model isn’t working, because China don’t buy our product.’ I mean, that’s the business model in a nutshell: ‘Let’s just charge the residents to pay for our piss poor business model,’” Eldreth said. 

Private service may not be possible for Rootstown

Rootstown is contracted through the end of the year to pay $2.25 per month with the county, said trustee Joe Paulus, but Steiner reached out to see if the township would increase its rates sooner to help cover costs. 

Paulus said the township will be voting at its next meeting whether to meet Steiner halfway and raise rates to $3.88 until the end of the year.

If the trustees vote against it, the recycling district could decide to discontinue service with a 90 day notice — “but we don’t want to do that, and Bill doesn’t want to do that. So he and I are talking it through and trying to find out what could work for the betterment of everybody, our residents and the recycling program,” Paulus said. 

In the meantime, Paulus has contacted four private recycling companies to see if they could offer a better price. So far, he’s only heard back from one company that said it wouldn’t consider servicing Rootstown. 

Steiner said some townships will be hard pressed to find a curbside recycling program that will contract with them because the houses are so spaced out. “For some companies, that may not be as attractive. But for us, the way our plan is written, we have to provide access to recycling to at least 80 to 90% of the population. So that’s what we’re charged with.”

Steiner’s regional drop off ambitions

Steiner said the commissioners have discussed trying to build three regional recycling centers across Portage at the county’s expense, but that will depend on how the budget looks. Ideally, the county would also assume the entire cost of operating the regional drop-off centers, Steiner said.  

“We’d have to buy and develop property, and that gets pretty pricey coming out of the pandemic. Everything is sky high right now, including gravel and fencing,” Steiner said. 

Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett said she was unable to comment. Commissioners Vicki Kline and Tony Badalamenti could not be reached.

Would there ever come a time where enough communities would back out and Portage County’s recycling operation would no longer be sustainable? “Anything’s possible,” said Steiner. “But I can tell you that currently we have a lot of support out there from communities, and they understand the value of the district.”

Owen MacMillan with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University contributed reporting. 

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Lyndsey Brennan is a Portager general assignment reporter. She is completing her master's degree in journalism at Kent State and is an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund internship program. Contact her at lyndsey@theportager.com.