Council members ask questions but get few answers about recycling

Chief of operations Darnell Brown told city council members at the Nov. 30 finance committee meeting that he’s awaiting a draft report and recycling won’t come back until spring 2021 at the very earliest.


When Cleveland City Council President Keven Kelley asked the Jackson administration to update the council finance committee on the city’s recycling overhaul, he got few definitive answers on Monday — other than recycling won’t come back until spring 2021 at the very earliest.

The city stopped recycling in April after receiving waste hauling bids that were higher than anticipated due to high contamination and the collapse of the recycling market. News reports that the city was sending recycling to the landfill upset council members and many city residents alike. (Read our story about the recycling hiatus here). Since then, the city has been sending two trucks down residential streets and asked residents to continue sorting their trash and garbage until a new program launches.

Kelley said he and others on council understand that unsustainably high costs forced the city to suspend its program. “What we want to know today is, where are we with the recycling program now, what options are being considered, and what timeline is being considered as we move into 2021?,” he said. “Picking up garbage and recycling is one of the bread-and-butter concepts of municipal government and we have to make it work.”

The city hired GT Environment to study its waste management and recycling systems. Chief Operating Officer for the City of Cleveland, Darnell Brown outlined the company’s scope of work for members of the committee. However, Brown was unable to answer many specific questions, stating that he was waiting for the draft report to be completed.

Kelley said that he, like others, initially wanted a quick fix to the city’s recycling woes, such as continuing to recycle paper and cardboard while the program gets a makeover. He has since changed his mind.

“The reason we can’t just pick one thing or come up with an easy solution is we spent a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of mailings trying to educate people on how to recycle properly and that still failed,” said Kelley. “A quick fix might complicate things more.”

Yet councilmembers still raised concerns about public input into the plan. Ward 12 councilmember Anthony Brancatelli pointed out that the consultant’s focus groups, which consisted of three groups of eight to 12 people, could hardly represent the entire city of over 360,000. “I would hardly call those focus groups, that’s just a close gathering,” he said.

Deputy Chief of Operations Terrell Cole said the city is looking to reach more people through surveys, such as the one being created by The Office of Sustainability. 

Ward 3 councilmember Kerry McCormack asked the Jackson administration to be more transparent. “One of the things I find successful in the communities I work in is just being straight up with people, so if we’ve got to make changes or really focus in on new ways to recycling,” those changes can be clearly communicated,” he said.

Brown said he expects an updated timeline in a few weeks, when the consultant submits a draft. Some of the cities they are researching in order to identify best practices and replicable models include Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Akron, according to Cole.

He added that the city will spend $50,000 this year on new waste bins, and expects to spend another $250,000 next year. Currently it can take up to a month for a household to get a new bin when one is damaged or stolen. Brown said the new carts will address the backlog, an issue councilmembers raised during the meeting.

Ward 9 Councilmember Kevin Conwell said he’d like to see the administration be more accountable to Council by creating an “issue log” to track council’s questions.

“Sometimes we ask the same questions over and over again because the city is not responding to us,” he said. “They should be listening to us. We’re funders.”

Brancatelli noted that it’s important not to place the blame entirely on residents and stressed the need for education and clear communication. “Our contamination rate isn’t just because people are negligent, it’s also people not having an understanding or education” about how to recycling properly, he said.

Although the city has told residents to continue separating recyclables, Brancatelli said during the meeting that he has told residents to “bag recycling.”

“Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” he said. “I’d rather not pretend we have recycling just to make folks feel good. That way, when we roll out, we can roll out fresh.”

Want to learn more and get involved? Follow Cleveland City Council, visit the City of Cleveland’s recycing resource page, or check out the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District. Also, check out this Scene article, Here’s how to recycle when the city doesn’t.

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. Madison MacArthur is a journalist and recent Kent State University graduate. This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab at Kent State University.

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