City recycling hiatus is an opportunity for a “fresh start,” solid waste district director says

By Lee Chilcote

When a Fox 8 I-Team story revealed last month that the city of Cleveland had been dumping all of its recyclables into the landfill for several weeks without telling anyone, many residents and city leaders were deeply angry and frustrated.

By Lee Chilcote

When a Fox 8 I-Team story revealed last month that the city of Cleveland had been dumping all of its recyclables into the landfill for several weeks without telling anyone, many residents and city leaders were deeply angry and frustrated.

While some took to social media to express their sense of betrayal, more than 75 residents also protested by dropping bags of recycling at city hall (they properly recycled it afterwards). Organizer Grace Heffernan says the event came about spontaneously after she learned that Cleveland wasn’t recycling anymore and joked on Twitter that she “wanted to take it to city hall.“

“For so many people, it was very jarring to see this Fox 8 story,” Ward 17 Councilman Charles Slife told the city’s chief operating officer Darnell Brown at the Tuesday, May 12th meeting of the Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee, stressing that the city’s reputation as a “green city on a blue lake” has attracted new residents in the last 10 years who expect recycling services. “The city would have gained so much more trust from the public if this had come out through the normal work of government, and not through a news report.”

The city’s account is that it had gone out to bid in January and gotten no responses. Then it went out to bid again and received only one response from Rumpke that was a lot higher than expected – $192 per ton, instead of the anticipated $50 – mainly because the city’s recycling is highly contaminated. So the city rejected the bid, allowing its contract to expire April 1st.

After the Fox 8 story outed the problem, Mayor Frank Jackson issued a message to residents that the city “remains committed to recycling.” In the meantime, he said, residents should just act like everything’s normal and continue separating their recycling from their trash while the city hires a consultant and revamps its system, a process that could take a year or more.

When it learned the news coming from city hall, the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District (CCSWD) issued a press release that this is a Cleveland problem and recycling is not canceled in the suburbs. “Recycling is as important as ever,” the agency said. “The county Solid Waste District wants Cuyahoga residents to know that this situation pertains to the City of Cleveland only.”

Brown defended the city at the recent committee meeting: “The city remains committed to recycling, but it has to be recycling that works. If 68 percent of your product is going to a landfill, you really don’t have a recycling program, that’s the bottom line.”

Yet Diane Bickett, executive director of CCSWD, says the way to fix Cleveland’s recycling problem is through a combination of education and enforcement, not telling residents to continue separating their trash from recyclables in city bins when the program is really on hold. The city can also promote alternative options such as drop-off locations for aluminum and paper and cardboard while it studies what’s working in other places.

“The city is telling people to continue to sort their recycling, but what’s the point of that?” she says. “I think they should make a fresh start. The habit was broken a long time ago in Cleveland because people weren’t doing it right. People have lost faith in the system when they found out their materials were being landfilled. There’s an opportunity to do a hard stop and a program refresh when they’re able to figure out the best way to offer recycling services to residents.”

Communication breakdown

Brown told the council committee on May 12th that recycling contamination is high because too many city residents use their blue bins as a second trash can. The problem is much deeper than just “wishcycling,” or the practice of putting something into the recycling bin without actually checking to see if it’s recyclable.

“They’re just dumping,” he said, citing the fact that city workers regularly find “car parts, bullets and dead animals” in the bins.

Yet the city has known about this problem for years and hasn’t been terribly proactive, critics say. When Fox 8 placed GPS trackers in city recycling containers last year, they revealed that as much as 90 percent of the city’s recycling was winding up in the trash. Jackson said he was going to hire a consultant to study the city’s waste system last year, but that never happened.

“Nothing here is by surprise,” Council President Kevin Kelley said at the meeting. “It’s well known the market’s cratered. It’s well known that our recycling has a high contamination rate. But from a council perspective, there’s nothing worse than learning about something on the news.”

Committee members expressed deep frustration that the city didn’t come clean with residents about the recycling program sooner. Given that it’s Council’s job to stay on top of what’s happening at city hall and constituent services, one wonders why they didn’t look into the issue sooner, as well. The city did not respond to specific questions for this story, referring only to past press releases.

“It’s going to take years to recover and recondition people who live in the city of Cleveland to think about recycling, with the way we handled it,” said Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone. “It will really take the next generation of Clevelanders to get recycling right.”

Looking at solutions

Cleveland and other cities used to earn rebates for recycling, but those days are mostly gone. The recycling market has been in flux since China stopped accepting most US plastics because of contamination in 2018. Today, most cities are paying to recycle, and if their recycling has high levels of contamination, they pay more.

Over the past five years or so, Cleveland has applied for nearly $300,000 in grants and used mailers and water bill inserts to educate residents about how to properly recycle, Brown told the committee, yet the city’s contamination rate of 68 percent is still way higher than the industry average of 20–25 percent.

The city’s 2018 recycling rate was just 7.5 percent; in Cuyahoga County, only East Cleveland and North Randall fared worse. By contrast, Bay Village has a recycling rate of nearly 68 percent, and Cleveland Heights tops 75 percent.

Bickett says teaching residents to recycle can cost as much as 50 cents to one dollar per household, but there are nonprofit and grant resources that can help. She also said enforcement is key. “Cart tagging is the best way to get a resident to recycle properly,“ she says, acknowledging that such a program requires a lot of manpower.

Last year, Akron rolled out its grant-funded “Recycle Right” campaign in partnership with Keep Akron Beautiful, Summit ReWorks and The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit. City employees went through residents’ recycling carts to make sure they didn’t contain any contaminants or garbage and to teach them how to recycle. A similar effort in Atlanta, Georgia resulted in a 57 percent decrease in contamination and a 27 percent increase in recyclables that were processed. 

Questions about costs

Cleveland instituted a waste collection fee in 2010 to help recover some of the costs it incurs in providing waste collection services. Many city residents believe it’s a “recycling fee,” but the city says that’s not the case. The fee covers about 50 percent of waste collection costs; the rest comes from the general fund.

The city has paused its recycling program because it can’t afford to absorb millions in unanticipated additional costs in a pandemic, Brown said. “Going from getting a rebate to $6 million-plus was an untenable situation for the city to be in,” Brown said. He did not explain how the city reached that cost estimate, which the Sierra Club questioned in an analysis posted on Twitter.

Committee members asked why the city was still sending two trucks down every street, if both recycling and garbage were ending up in the landfill anyway.

“Why not have just one truck come down and adjust the routes?” asked Ward 12 Councilman Tony Brancatelli at the meeting. “They’d still pick up the same volume, but you wouldn’t have trucks backtracking and going over the same route multiple times.”

Brown denied this would save money and said residents need to keep sorting to keep up recycling habits. “We need to encourage residents to recycle,” he told the committee. “It’s not hurtful for the public to continue the concept of recycling and learn how to do it correctly.”

Alternative options

The city’s website tells residents to continue recycling but does not tell them what their alternative options are now that the program is on hold. Bickett recommended that the city update its website to provide a link to the list on the CCSWD website and be proactive in promoting recycling options on social media.

Zone also raised this point during the committee meeting. “We need extensive community engagement and education, and I don’t see that coming out of the city,” he said. “It’s not clear where people can go for recycling now.”

According to the solid waste district list, Clevelanders can recycle paper at Paper Retriever, River Valley and Royal Oak drop-off locations. They can recycle cans at Aluminum Cans for Burned Children (ACBC) drop-off locations at fire stations.

In a May 19th follow-up committee meeting, Ward 5 Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland said that recycling education is harder in high-poverty areas. “A lot of residents don’t have the luxury of making recycling their top priority,” she said. “They may be more focused on educating their children or getting food on the table. We need to educate people where they are.”

Ultimately, proper recycling is only one part of the solution. Residents also need to reduce the amount of waste they bring into their homes and reuse materials. Policy makers need to focus on making sure companies make products that are recyclable. “I’m not sure we can recycle our way out of this problem,” Brown told the committee.

While the city is examining the possibility of bringing back its own drop-off locations, Brown says they would need to monitor them to prevent dumping. Previous city recycling drop-offs were eliminated by the city because they became targets for illegal dumping.

The committee pressed Brown to clearly communicate with residents about recycling opportunities and tap the community for ideas and engagement as it looks to revamp the program. “I feel like we’re just punting on this thing,” Zone said. “Don’t just act like it’s running. Tell people how to recycle now.”

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