The revelation last spring that Cleveland had been secreting its recyclables to a landfill for months may have finally met its match: Groups of residents on the city’s Near West Side are starting their own, albeit much smaller, recycling programs.
After an angry throng showed up at City Hall last May to protest the cessation of recycling, the city launched a major study that aims to eliminate the troubles plaguing a system that has lost most of its value as a commodity. Mayor Jackson came forward with a statement reaffirming the city’s commitment to recycling, asking for residents to continue sorting their recyclables into blue bags. In the interim, anger has hardened into resolve for the likes of Ellen Kirtner-LaFleur and Deb Smith who are organizing their neighbors and following in the footsteps of independent recyclers in their neighborhood in Ohio City and Tremont.
Rather than wait for the Jackson Administration to produce a new recycling plan, which the city says could take the better part of 2021, Kirtner-LaFleur and Smith are taking matters into their own hands. Admittedly small in scale, they are using “cloud” apps like Google or placing blue bins in their neighborhood for anyone who signs up to drop off reusable and recyclable materials.
Their actions may keep a fraction of recycling that would otherwise be saved in a centralized, citywide program from entering the landfill. But, fixing a broken system — the City of Cleveland recycled only 3% and composted 1% of the 192,443 tons of solid waste it generated and sent to a landfill in 2019, according to the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District — had to start somewhere. And at least for now, they knew they couldn’t count on much help from the city, which still hasn’t updated its recycling web page despite halting its program 9 months ago.
“I was definitely spurred on by the news that the City of Cleveland was not recycling, and the terrible realization that all things in blue bags were going into the landfill,” said Kirtner-LaFleur in describing her and her partner, Zach’s efforts, which they call West Side Trash Connectors. “I reached out to friends in Ohio City because I wanted to find a way to give this stuff a purpose.”
Kirtner-LaFleur started with a simple Google Sheet that she shared with friends and neighbors who can post an item for giveaway, like a box of glass jars or plastic yogurt cups that found a home with a gardener who took them to grow vegetables from seed.
“It’s a niche thing,” she added, “we can connect to people who are being creative on how to reuse these things.”
For Smith, setting up blue bins for aluminum can drop offs in Tremont is a limited version of what she had in mind when she retired from University Hospitals. Before the pandemic, she and her partner, Dave, had a tent at the Tremont Farmer’s Market where people would drop off recyclables. Her goal in starting up Clean Garbage Recycling, LLC is to prove that small-scale recycling is a business opportunity. But that has been stymied by the markets, she said. Paper products still have market value, and so she arranged for an Abitibi paper retriever bin for the community at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Tremont.
Abitibi Consolidated Inc. is a pulp and paper company based in Montreal, Quebec that posted profits of $5.3 billion Canadian dollars in 2006, according to Wikipedia. For her to make money, she said, CGR would need to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a baler, a machine that can crunch large quantities of paper or cardboard into a cube for resale. Smith found a place that will recycle glass bottles, but it pays only $25 per ton, and she would have to drive it 127 miles each way to Newark, Ohio. Plastic, she said, is a conundrum. Its value was inflated when China was buying it in bulk, a practice that ended, full stop, last year. That leaves aluminum cans, which she drives to a Cleveland scrap yard. She has earned only $200 doing this since August.
“I don’t even know that we’ve proven recycling works,” Smith said about the 100 people who have signed up for the service. “My dream wasn’t to become an aluminum collector. But it does lay that foundation that we are all in this world together and we have to do our part.”
Smith and Kirtner-LaFleur can take heart that others like them in Cleveland are struggling against the behemoth of industrial-scale consumerism. One of Kirtner-LaFleur’s neighbors in the Cleveland EcoVillage, Nicole McGee, has made a business of repurposing into art and reselling secondhand items like leather scraps and beads at the Upcycle Parts Shop located on the city’s East Side, on St. Clair Avenue.
What ties them together is a satisfaction in bringing new life to materials.
“I realized I was more excited about something that had a story or history than the shiny new beads,” McGee said about her start in 2014, which was spurred by the discovery of a chest of drawers she came across by the side of the road that was filled with costume jewelry. It reminded her of the time in high school when her father, a builder, pulled the family pickup truck over by the side of the highway where he spotted a wrench. For McGee, it made sense to combine her training as an artist, in advertising, and as a social worker. She found her tribe at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, at the Reuse Connect Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina and with the nearby Scrap Exchange, a resale shop.
“It was exciting to learn from other ‘waste nerds’,” she said. “You gravitate toward each other with a shared belief in the power of being resourceful. When you see the consumption and landfills, they are such daunting issues. I call that the dark side of the mountain. I can’t stop companies from what they do. I like to ignite creativity from what we already have in our waste stream.”
Like McGee, urban farmer Kimmie Lessman saw firsthand how a small-scale community run reuse shop functions adjacent to the town dump while living in a small island community off the coast of Washington State. Lessman puts many of the lessons of self-reliance to use with her partner, Jamie, at Other Hand Farm in the Stockyards neighborhood. They encourage friends and family to burn sensitive documents in weekly bonfires, and they take cardboard for sheet mulching, a practice of layering it in with food waste for compost in which to grow vegetables for sale. McGee and Lessman see an active community on the Near West Side as a key ingredient.
“[Sites like] The Buy Nothing Facebook Page here is non-stop,” Lessman said, “another way of building community that is a complete interference with trash and waste.”
When asked about how Cleveland can harness the new energy that has formed around recycling, reuse and upcycling, Lessman, McGee, Kirtner-LaFleur and Smith share the belief that more education and more encouragement from the city could be helpful.
“It’s not fair to say just because we don’t recycle right that we don’t deserve to have it,” Kirtner-LaFleur said, who adds that she prefers the recycling program in Akron because “they are reinforcing things going right rather than punishing when things go wrong.”
“It’s almost unfair to put such a large task in so few hands,” added Lessman, who prefers a model of community-based recycling to a centralized system because more stakeholders could provide more failsafes. “The government is massive, but it feels like something we should be doing. I feel like the most inspiring thing is having these pocket recycling centers.”
“The ‘why’ for me is connecting with people and building community,” said McGee. “A sharing economy – there’s so much power there for a resilient community.”