Circular Cleveland grants fund creative upcycling initiatives

Two Cleveland non-profit organizations have launched Circular Cleveland, a small grant program that is funding individuals who are reusing and repairing old cars, clothes, furniture that would ordinarily end up going into a landfill.

Contributed photo from Clean Garbage Recycling, one of the Circular Cleveland Grantees.

Contributed photo from Clean Garbage Recycling, one of the Circular Cleveland Grantees.

When recycling stopped in Cleveland, Tremont resident Deb Smith found a way to keep going.

Looking to keep recyclables out of the landfill, she founded Clean Garbage Recycling as a collectively run alternative to the city’s temporarily paused program. Now, she’s carting a trailer around her neighborhood looking for toasters, old irons, and scrap metal to take to the metal recycler in Cleveland. She has already recycled 1,739 pounds of sheet iron, 101 pounds of fencing, 57 pounds of motors among other heavy items.

“We will continue to press on in our efforts to keep recyclable scrap out of the landfill,” she wrote in an email.

Smith is one of 14 first-round winners of a Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Food Access Raises Everyone (FARE) Circular Cleveland grant in support of projects devoted to upcycling or reuse.

The grants, totaling more than $40,000, may be as large as $3,000 each and will go to individuals or groups that take used materials otherwise headed to a landfill and repurpose them as products or other items for residents of Cleveland.

In Hough, for instance, Africa House International will receive funding for a series of art-making sessions in which older artists will train participants to reuse, recycle, and repurpose art materials.  

A group called Cleveland Sews will harvest advertising banners purchased for the NFL Draft event Cleveland hosted this year and train people to cut and sew them into a new use: supply kits. A downtown “closet” for gently used clothes is the idea behind King’s Closet, another grant winner.

Many of the winners were already doing the work of reusing materials, said Morgan Taggart, director of FARE, adding that many groups also sought funding from Neighborhood Connections, which supports the same kind of work. 

“It is an opportunity to lift folks up who have experience upcycling,” Taggart said. 

Keeping items out of landfills is a common theme among grant winners. Indeed, said Taggart, many materials don’t just start out in Cleveland. They end up here, in landfills, polluting any number of natural resources in the city. 

Design for Life is another winner, in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood. It collects discarded furniture and hires repairmen to train young people to restore them. 

Similarly, through a grant, Food Not Bombs will host auto mechanics to train its workers to repair the cars they use to distribute food. Likewise, the Coit Road Farmer’s Market will repair and reuse Cleveland-built hoop houses for year-round food growing.

“Those who are most affected by (illegal) dumping need to be at the table,” Taggart said.

The table in this case is being set by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP). In addition to offering small grants, CNP and FARE are also convening city officials, industry leaders, and small business owners to discuss the viability of a reuse or “circular” economy. Among those at the table: Cleveland Cliffs and A Piece of Cleveland, a business that makes furniture from materials salvaged from old homes.

The impetus for the grant program and the meetings was the revelation last year that Cleveland had been secretly sending residential recycling to a landfill. 

It was “a big wake-up call,” said CNP manager of climate resiliency and sustainability Divya Sridhar. “It is an opportune moment when everyone is throwing away recycling. We have an opportunity to start from scratch.” 

The idea for a circular economy was promoted at the Cleveland Sustainability Summit in 2018. There, Ellen MacArthur Foundation executive Nik Engineer spoke of treating waste as a resource. He noted that the practice is common in industry, and that Cleveland already has a good start, pointing to steel makers who accept scrap metal and recycle it into new steel products. 

Throughout the fall, CNP will host roundtable discussions with industry and city leaders. They’ll also consult residents trained in upcycling. 

The goal will be to learn best practices from industry to improve the “metabolism” of the region, particularly in the area of housing demolition, which places great pressure on landfills. They’ll also look at ways to reduce consumption at the start of manufacturing processes and support businesses — such as the grantees — that reuse materials. 

Whether the material is land or food scraps, “It’s about how to best use the assets at hand,” said Taggart. 

“We’re looking at [industry] sectors and asking, ‘What are the wastes?’” added Sridhar, pointing to a similar push for a circular economy now underway in Toronto, Canada. “It’s normalizing the language so that it’s okay to reuse and reduce consumption.”

For more information on Circular Cleveland, visit or

CORECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the number of grant winners as 12 rather than 14.

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Marc Lefkowitz is a writer and sustainability expert in Cleveland Heights.

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