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Easton City Council approves trash transportation contract for over $2.4 million

Brian Myszkowski
Easton City Council approved a $2.4 million garbage and recycling transportation contract at Wednesday's meeting. While Mayor Sal Panto Jr. has warned residents this could lead to an increase in fees, he also assured the public that the city government is looking into ways to prevent that.

  • Easton City Council approved a waste and recycling transportation contract during Wednesday's meeting
  • The cost of the contract is nearly double, potentially due to the cost of labor
  • Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said he is waiting to sign the contract and will be considering further options to reduce costs to residence

EASTON, Pa. — Easton residents may see a garbage rate increase in 2024 following the city council’s approval of a new contract for transportation approved during Wednesday’s meeting.

Easton City Council approved a three-year contract — including an option to mutually agree to a renewal for three successive one-year contracts — with Whitetail Disposal Inc. Whitetail will handle the collection and transportation of solid waste and recyclables for the city at a cost of $2,422,393.81.

That figure is about double the cost of the previous contract, according to Director of Public Services David Hopkins.

"I know that garbage rates are going to go up, but they're not going to go up $1.1 million. That would be about [a] $11 per month increase per person in the city — that's just not sustainable. People can't afford that."
Mayor Sal Panto Jr.

Previously, the city council approved contracts for solid waste and recycling, which increased approximately 7.2% and 25% — though recycling figures vary due to credits the city could receive from recyclable items — though both Mayor Sal Panto Jr. and Hopkins said the cost of waste and recyclable transportation would see the largest increase.

Panto has been warning the public for weeks about the upcoming increases in trash and recycling fees in the city. During the last city council session, the mayor noted elevated trash contracts are a problem nationwide, especially in the Lehigh Valley.

Further increases are expected in the coming years — $100,000 each for the next two years, the mayor said — Panto said, though he has opted to hold off on signing the transportation contract with Whitetail for now.

“Even though we approved it tonight, I won't sign it tomorrow. Normally, I sign a contract the next day, but I won't sign because we're going to take our time evaluating the difference,” Panto said.

One potential solution may be for the city to create its own self-sufficient garbage crew, the mayor said, and that is just one option to be considered. Thanks to the setup of the contract with Whitetail, the city could potentially launch such an effort within the next few years.

Hopkins speculated the driving force for contract increases could be labor insurance, especially when it comes to rear-loading garbage trucks as opposed to vehicles with robotic arms.

“Waste Management didn't even provide a bid, and we were told even by our current hauler, they're not bidding rear load contracts anymore, that the company will bid existing rear load contracts, but they're not going after any new business,” Hopkins said.

“And the reason for that is, there's a lot of workers comp injuries. You know, it's tough to recruit people, it's pretty tough work. I just think all those things are leading towards automation. They'd rather automate from a number of standpoints. I think their insurance costs have gone up significantly, and that's kind of what's driving the costs for our contract.”

Panto agreed and said it comes down to the question of whether the contractors wish to employ a single worker per truck with an automated arm, or three workers, all of whom would have to be insured for a job potentially fraught with danger.

A 2022 study from the National Library of Medicine states “The research to date provides suggestive evidence of elevated occupational risk among sanitation workers across a range of health conditions. More research is needed to improve the current bodies of evidence for all included health outcomes to be able to quantify disease burden among this occupational group.”

Being that the average wage for a sanitation worker hovers around $17 per hour in Pennsylvania, and garbage collection companies are looking to a future of automated pickup — potentially even driven by artificial intelligence — prospects for traditional pickup are limited.

It’s even more problematic in Easton, a city whose streets were originally intended for horses and humans. Narrow pathways throughout the area are particularly tricky for garbage vehicles with automated arms, meaning Easton officials are largely under the thumb of these companies which still offer rear-load pickup.

“In the cities, there are parts that could be automated, but to make a real difference, you really have to have a significant portion that can be automated,” Hopkins said.

“Otherwise, they still have to have the same rear-load crews in here. So even if we did a portion of the single-family homes on the South Side or College Hill or something, it wouldn't be enough to move the needle to make automation truly make a difference in the cost.”

As the city budget announcement rapidly approaches – Panto confirmed it will be revealed on Oct. 1 – officials are working on borrowed time to keep costs in line so they won’t fall on residents.

"I know that garbage rates are going to go up, but they're not going to go up $1.1 million. That would be about a $11 per month increase per person in the city — that's just not sustainable. People can't afford that," Panto said.