Like many others in Northeast Ohio, Kiera Kurak, Sarah Tan and Katie Dugan were stunned when Cleveland admitted to dumping recyclable items into a landfill. They, though, didn’t just complain about it. They took matters into their own hands.
They saw and jumped at an opportunity to address the problem at its source. They thought to reduce landfill waste by taking discarded items and repairing them for a second life.
Calling themselves Old Brooklyn Recycles, the three neighbors who met at a women’s support group applied for and received funding from the crowdfunding platform Ioby and a grant for reuse, recycling, and composting activities from Circular Cleveland, an initiative of Sustainable Cleveland and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP).
Learn more about Circular Cleveland at https://www.sustainablecleveland.org/circular_cleveland. Check out our previous stories here.
What started as a grassroots effort to pick up the city’s recycling slack became a movement to keep items out of the landfill in the first place. At the same time, Circular Cleveland was just getting started. Its first round of funding from late 2021 supported a slew of repair projects, many of which are now coming to fruition.
Old Brooklyn Recycles has been busy. They’ve worked with Ben Franklin Community Garden to create a community compost program. They also convinced Metropolitan Coffee to organize an aluminum can drive, with proceeds benefiting local burn victims. That effort then expanded into a permanent can, paper, and plastic collection project based at Pearl Road United Methodist Church.
In 2021, the trio estimates it diverted 1.5 tons of material out of landfills. Much of this was food waste, which tends to be heavier than other waste and constitutes as much as one-third of all household trash.
Sarah Tan said she sees her role in part as an educator tasked with the job of explaining which items are actually being recycled. In this respect, she said, the group’s message is in line with that of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District, which has whittled down recyclables to five basic categories. The group also is gauging interest in Cleveland’s interim recycling program.
In February, Old Brooklyn Recycles took on a new task: It set its sights on repairing damaged goods. It teamed up with fellow Circular Cleveland grantees Oh Sew Powerful and Cleveland Sews to host a fix-it clinic on sewing.
On a recent snowy Saturday afternoon, a group composed mostly of women gathered on Zoom and discussed embroidery, stitch witchery, and when to use patches. Throughout, participants held up garments and asked a lot of questions.
“We had this opportunity in front of us, all of this knowledge and a willingness to share it,” Dugan said.
Through Circular Cleveland, Kurak, Tan, and Dugan met Sharie Renee of Cleveland Sews, a job training initiative located in a former factory in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood. They also met Paula Coggins, head of the non-profit Oh Sew Powerful, which teaches youth the art of sewing at a recreation center in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood.
“Circular Cleveland has been instrumental in opening us up to a wider network of concern and making us feel that we’re not alone,” Kurak says. “They helped to empower us.”
Renee, of Cleveland Sews, grew up in Cleveland but lived for a time on the West Coast operating a small apparel business in small villages in Mexico. She now operates Cleveland Sews from a warehouse space donated by her brother.
She used her Circular Cleveland grant to collect advertising banners from the National Football League when it held a Draft Day event in Cleveland. She said she rescued 920 pounds of materials from the landfill. The grant covered her time to clean, inventory, and design prototypes for a usable product made from banner material, such as tote bags.
“The [Circular Cleveland grant] was about learning to re-manufacture,” Renee said. “We’re now beginning our phase two. The first grant helped get a little clearer on what needs to happen, what’s involved in the recovery and reclaiming.”
Renee said she sees Cleveland Sews as a natural progression from Cosmic Bobbins, the sewing education and retail she operated for six years in Cleveland’s Shaker Square.
“When we left Shaker Square and continued our [commercial sewing training] programming, the pandemic shifted the landscape,” Renee said. “It changed things. As terrible as the pandemic was, it allowed new opportunities to come forward. It allowed us to till the soil.”
It’s fitting that Renee used the image of tilling. For she also has started a community garden outside Cleveland Sews headquarters. She said she’s exploring the intersection between regenerative agriculture and the reuse economy.
Cleveland Sews also pivoted during the pandemic to making masks, in collaboration with Oh Sew Powerful, which was already sewing masks in after-school programs and recreation centers.
“Paula [Coggins] called me, and we were 10,000 masks deep at that time, and we discussed how the circular economy was happening,” Renee said. “It was really exciting to see [Coggins] at that first Circular Cleveland stakeholder summit.”
Renee and Coggins emerged from the summit energized to apply for Circular Cleveland grants. Coggins, for her part, was eager to pursue a passion that originated in school and developed into a nonprofit run in partnership with her friends Nadine Matlock and Suzanne Hawthorne-Clay.
Earning non-profit status this year allowed Oh Sew Powerful to pursue the charity work that Coggins sees as a community building activity. The group is now working on a project that reclaims discarded fabric from retailers and makes out of it care kits for children being placed into foster care. It’s also working with the Black-led nonprofit, See You At The Top (SYATT), which leads BIPOC youth on outdoor excursions, teaching young people how to sew bags for collecting sea glass at the beach.
Renee and Coggins credit Old Brooklyn Recycles for cementing the “Fix-It Clinic” concept, an idea that originated in Seattle and other liberal cities under titles like Repair Cafe.
“We have this desire in our hearts,” Coggins said. “We wanted to do this for our community.”
Old Brooklyn Recycles plans to hold in-person “Fix-It Clinics” focused on items people say they’d rather repair than discard, such as mobile phone screens, appliances, and bicycles.
“Our goal is to get together and keep the things out of the landfill,” Dugan concludes. “If we keep them in good working order with the knowledge to fix things, ultimately, we’ll reduce (our) impact from waste.”
Marc Lefkowitz is a journalist and sustainability expert who lives in Cleveland Heights.