Hard reality of recycling: It’s time to pay the price

As we’ve observed the move this summer to increase local trash collection rates to accommodate rising costs of recycling, we reluctantly acknowledge the outcome but we definitely are bothered by the process.

While we aren’t big fans of the arrangement between the city and Sweet Home Sanitation to automatically increase trash collection rates rates in the city annually based on the Consumer Price Index, we understand why Sweet Home Sanitation might want it that way.

In 2015, a couple of councilors dickered over what amounted to a rate hike of about 14 cents per month at the request of Sweet Home Sanitation. Its rates at the time were growing slower than the CPI. Their review stretched out what should have been simple and straightforward.

Since then, the company, which has an exclusive agreement to pick up trash in the city, has automated its rate increases; and the council agreed to the arrangement a year ago.

Now we’re facing another increase, in addition to the automatic CPI-based one, which appeared on our bills in July. This one is prompted by the rising costs of recycling following China’s announcement earlier this year that it would no longer accept our contaminated recycling materials.

Since last year, Sweet Home Sanitation has dutifully reported to the council about its ongoing struggles to pay for recycling. Nothing has come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to the situation. Across the state, trash companies have been asking different jurisdictions whether they prefer to continue recycling or start land-filling recyclable materials.

It appears that most are going with the much more expensive option to recycle instead of using a landfill, though our neighbors in Brownsville have opted for the latter.

Our City Council has chosen to recycle, which means we’re looking at an 8-percent increase, which apparently is less than what Sweet Home Sanitation believes it actually needs to break even. The company believes it needs an 11.62-percent increase to balance the books.

The council appears to have chosen the most expensive solution, to continue recycling instead of using a landfill. The landfill is a realistic option for now if keeping down rates is the council’s objective. We cannot have our cake and eat it too.

We’d also like to note that landfilling is not the end of the world – no more than U.S. use of straws are causing any substantial oceanic pollution (to mention a much nuttier and misguided craze sweeping council chambers across the country, the straw ban).

In their Aug. 14 meeting, councilors balked at the process of approving the ordinance that officially sets the company’s rates, oversight the company must cope with in order to continue its monopoly on Sweet Home’s trash service.

Council members agreed by consensus on the 8 percent figure at their July 24 meeting, and Sweet Home Sanitation ran with that, slapping the increased rate on August bills.

We do not find anything bizarre in the rate request and the council’s consensus approval of the rate increase last month. It was to be expected. Sweet Home Sanitation may operate a government-sanctioned monopoly, but it has to be profitable.

What the local firm is experiencing is the same thing happening up and down the West Coast. China’s refusal to accept our recyclable refuse, the end of that particular piece of international trade, has consequences.

The consequences to us are the costs of disposing of our garbage, which for most local customers, includes recycling.

Anyone who wishes can avoid the increase, though, by using the transfer station directly. Rate increases there are tied only to the annual rate increase.

We appreciate the council’s concerns about increasing rates. We feel the rate increases. We dislike them too, as we do paying more for food, fuel, household supplies and everything else.

The fact is that the people providing these services must pay their bills too, and we need to pay them for the services we use.

What we don’t like is the process by which this is playing out. The rate is set by ordinance. The council agreed by consensus on July 24 to move forward with the rate increase without ever approving the ordinance to set the rate. It shouldn’t have done that and Sweet Home Sanitation should have waited until it had official votes on the rate change before actually putting it on our bills. Yeah, it is going to happen – we think – but the procedure has gotten a little muddy.

The council should have raised these questions before giving a nod to Sweet Home Sanitation. The council needs to keep its word, with no more delays, read that ordinance three times and then approve it. Anything else is just unnecessary posturing and unfair to Sweet Home Sanitation.

Moving onto a related matter, we agree with Councilor Lisa Gourley, who has voiced objections to suggestions that the process by which city ordinances are created should be accelerated.

Generally, we like efficiency in government. But we think that lawmaking should be measured. It’s slow at the state and federal level, and it ought to be slow at the local level.

Major decisions should come following careful, thoughtful consideration, with plenty of opportunity for the public to weigh in. By default, a law takes 2½ months to pass in Sweet Home. Then it’s on the books until the council takes a similar period to repeal it.

That measured process ensures that the council has time to receive input and consider various arguments for and against an ordinance. Anybody who’s ever served on a jury knows how our minds can be changed by new information.

We do like the suggestion we occasionally hear from staff and councilors about removing the requirement to read entire proposed ordinances aloud during the first of the three-step approval process. It needlessly extends the length of City Council meetings, not to mention how hard on city staff it can be to read aloud what is sometimes dozens of pages of text. To ensure that council members have actually read the document prior to their vote, why not have them sign on a dotted line, attesting that they have indeed done so?

Sometimes, a majority of councilors may be anxious to get it done quickly in the name of progress. A longer process may not change their opinions, but it could. And the time involved ensures that intelligent, conscientious councilors will spend some time really thinking about it, weighing out the potential impacts of their decisions.

When change is actually needed quickly, the council can literally get a new ordinance done in two weeks. The risk in that, of course, is the possibility of poor wording or errors creeping in.

It’s been noted that the council could slow down the process if needed.

We like the current default better.