Portage County recycling attempts a comeback after resources dwindle

Dawn Collins fills in as the acting director at the Portage County Solid Waste Management District. The district has undergone several changes the last few years, but Collins plans to expand residential service.

Filling in as acting director at the Portage County Solid Waste Management District, Dawn Collins is hopeful to turn the business around. 


“I fully intend to flip this program,” she said. “We’re gonna focus more on providing residential services.”

Collins has been the deputy director since December 2017, but she is now managing the program while director Bill Steiner is on an “extended vacation,” she said.

The program began three decades ago but like 2020, it continues to change.

The solid waste district was established in 1989 to comply with Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency law that says each county must provide recycling access to reduce landfill. 

Sitting at the edge of many Portage County residential curbs are bright-blue 95-gallon recycling containers. Recycling is the action of converting waste into reusable material. 

At a resident’s home – cardboard amazon boxes, plastic water bottles and aluminum soda cans fill to the container’s brim. The lid doesn’t close. Bi-weekly, a Portage County solid waste driver pulls up to the container and hauls the trash away. More than 800 tons of waste is hauled away every month. 

The items are then dropped off at the district’s processing center and sorted before travelling to Waste Management, Akron’s Transfer Station. Portage County doesn’t have its own landfill so waste is delivered to its neighboring county, Summit County. Two weeks later, the process starts all over again.

The program offers two residential services: drop-off locations and curbside pickup. 

Drop-offs are free to local residents, but the towns pay an annual fee of $600. Curbside works differently. If residents opt for the service, they pay a small monthly fee. Currently, each town has a different pay rate. 

In fact, Streestboro pays $3.75 per household per month and Hiram pays $3.98. Collins said the average curbside cost in the U.S. is $7 per household per month, and the district is working on a standardized agreement for bi-weekly services of $5.50 a month throughout the county. 

Portage County does its part to reduce landfill.

In 2016, the solid waste program changed its dual-stream process to single-stream recycling, which Collins said increases recycling by 30%. Separating paper products from other recycled items like plastic and metal is dual-stream recycling. Single-stream allows people to put all recyclables into one container. 

Most of Portage County has access to the recycling service, but contracts with commercial entities ended in April 2021 and free service accounts, which are non-profit organizations with 95-gallon cans or smaller, ended Dec. 31, 2020. Terminated services ensured that drivers could focus on residential areas. 

While businesses lost service, the district is terminating Streetsboro and Aurora’s residential services later this year. Towns such as Freedom Township discontinued its drop- off service because of illegal dumping and residents have yet to be offered curbside pickup through the solid waste district. Collins faces a host of obstacles, but she said she plans to help Freedom Township and expand domestic services to bring the program back.

The district’s solid waste plan says it needs to provide access to 90% of Portage County communities through dropoff stations or curb-side pickup. Currently, it offers 92% access to residents across the county with the exception of Deerfield, Freedom Township, Garrettsville, Windham Village and Windham Township. With the soon-to-be terminated contracts of Streetsboro and Aurora, Collins said the access will still remain at 92% because the residents will have service through a private hauler, such as Kimble.

Lack of access and terminated contracts are two different issues. 

Towns without access can’t sign up for recycling services through a different company like Kimble because Portage County has their own recycling program. Only when a city has a terminated contract can another hauler put in a bid to service the town. Whichever bid is chosen, that company can provide the service. 

Terminated contracts

The district asked Streetsboro to end its contract early, at the end of September. The city of Aurora’s contract ends Dec. 31 and will not be renewed. Kimble will begin recycling service Oct. 1 for Streetsboro. Aurora currently has the bidding open for haulers to stake a price, which will be decided in the city council meeting before the end of the year.

The solid waste district terminated the contracts because it’s understaffed, is low on trucks and wants to service areas closer to the transfer station.

A lot of employees quit over the summer.

Several drivers and a mechanic left within a few weeks, the solid waste board of commissioners reported in August’s meeting minutes. Former employees found jobs with higher pay and better benefits, such as a 40-hour work week. 

Overtime is turning drivers away, but “I have staff that want to return,” Collins said. “I hope to make it better.”

No access – no option

Another issue is illegal dumping.

Illegal dumping has forced Garrettsville and Freedom Township to make the tough decision of removing its drop off locations. Now, residents can’t recycle.

Freedom Township officials ended the service last year. 

“We didn’t want to shut it down and our residents didn’t want us to shut it down,” said Roy Martin, the chairman of Freedom Township.

Martin said that cat litter, car and truck parts and even mattresses were dropped off, which forced the township to pay two to three times a week for haulers to remove the extra trash.

“We had signs up after signs up after signs up and couldn’t get people to stop,” he added. 

Resident Mario Fonseca used to load up five bags of weekly recyclables in his truck and take them down to the Freedom Township drop- off location. He said the nearly seven bins were always overflowing with cardboard and aluminum, but plastic toys and buckets were also thrown in with the items. But he first heard about the township’s issue with illegal dumping at a town meeting.

“They said something about people were throwing in trash that didn’t belong there,” Fonseca said. “Mattresses, a TV [and] tires.”

Tyler Parker is another Freedom Township resident. He used Portage County’s curbside pickup service when he lived in Ravenna Township but after moving three months ago, recycling is no longer an option.

“I want to have it, but I can’t get it in any shape or form,” he said.

Parker said his wife tried to add recycling to their Kimble service, but she was told because Portage County has its own hauler, Kimble cannot provide the service.

Collins has a list of services she plans to offer, but she needs the resources first.

“Freedom Township wants to go curb-side and I’m not opposed for them to go curbside,” she said. “But I dont have the staff or the trucks, and it’s an option in the future, just not yet.”

Grit and determination

An source who asked to remain anonymous said that Collins “is the one who truly is working her hardest to save the program.”

While the district has lost drivers because of overtime and lack of competitive pay, it couldn’t continue business as usual. Circumstances required the company to pivot and try something new.

Collins sat in her second floor office with pictures of kids against her window seal and folded her hands on her dark-oaked desk. It was the first day of her interim role.

She listed off her action plan:

  • concentrate on residential and rural areas,

  • seek grants to offer additional services, including an electronic recycling machine,

  • streamline to bi-weekly recycling services for $5.50 a month, and

  • reduce overtime.

“I want to retain my drivers,” she said. “I hope to have more recycling available and more programs to offer.”

Kelly Krabill is an assigning editor. Contact her at [email protected].