Talking trash: the dirt on the city’s new opt-in recycling program

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When the city of Cleveland stopped recycling in April of last year because of high contamination rates and the inability to secure a contract, many residents were disappointed. The Land recently caught up with sustainability director Jason Wood ahead of the Sustainable Cleveland summit, who shared how the city is trying to start fresh and regain trust with its new opt-in recycling program.

So far, Wood said, about 9,000 people have signed up (UPDATE: As of 10/21/21, the number was up to 17,000). They saw a surge in signups over the past several weekends and anticipate a bump as the opt-in period comes to a close on Oct. 22 (NOTE: It’s been extended until Nov. 5 to accommodate demand). As of the writing of this article, Wood expected the number to ultimately top 10,000. 

Based on data provided to city council by the administration in August, the heaviest signups are coming from Wards 3, 15 and 17 on the west side (which include Ohio City, Tremont, Detroit Shoreway and West Park, among others) while the lowest participation is in Wards 10 (South Collinwood, St. Clair Superior, Glenville), 7 (Hough and Midtown), and 5 (Central and Slavic Village).

Cabinet members of the Jackson administration have expressed concern about the geographic disparities. “While we are seeing the expected increase in the number of individuals opting-in to the curbside recycling program, we are still seeing that these enrollments are not evenly spread across the city,” chief of communications, government and international affairs Valarie McCall wrote to council on Sept. 27. “In total, over two-thirds of the enrollments come from three wards and, conversely, six wards individually make up less than 1 percent of the total enrollments.”

This map shows opt-ins as of Aug. 2021. The Land has requested an updated list but has not received one yet.

This map shows opt-ins as of Aug. 2021. The Land has requested an updated list but has not received one yet.

Nonetheless, the city is starting small so it can get the program right, Wood said. “We’re not focused on enrollment so much as getting people who are good quality recyclers,” he said. “Our main priority has been building a committed group through the program.” 

This table from the city of Cleveland shows where people had opted into the new recycling program as of Aug. 27, 2021. Signups are heavily concentrated on the west side and especially in wards 3, 15 and 17, while east side participation is lower.

This table from the city of Cleveland shows where people had opted into the new recycling program as of Aug. 27, 2021. Signups are heavily concentrated on the west side and especially in wards 3, 15 and 17, while east side participation is lower.

While signups have been heavily concentrated on the west side (check out the map and table in this article), Wood said that’s starting to change. Enrollment still skews west, but more east siders are signing up as word gets out.

“It’s not equally distributed yet and we’d like to see more participation,” he added. The Land requested updated data showing where people are signed up across the city, but the city has not yet responded. The city has also not yet responded to public records requests from July and August. After Mayor Jackson’s final State of the City speech, we asked him if he’d use his bully pulpit to promote recycling (he declined).

One of the heaviest criticisms consultant GT Environmental made in a report on the city’s recycling program released earlier this year was that the city spent only $25,000 per year promoting it. One reason why people were not recycling properly is that they were unaware of the rules, the report said.

Wood said the city is rectifying this by spending $65,000-$70,000 marketing the new opt-in program through its website, social media promotion, robocalls to seniors through the Department of Aging, and a citywide mailer that hit mailboxes the week of Oct. 11. Sustainable Cleveland has also promoted the program to its mailing list of 13,000-14,000 people. (The city sent out this folder of marketing materials.)

The sustainability chief added that recycling bids are due back this week and he’s confident the city will have a new contract soon. “The changes we made to the program were designed to get the city back to where we could afford the contract,” he said.

Public education will also be a bigger focus of the program going forward. For example, the city’s recently-hired recycling coordinator, Orensel “Ren” Brumfield, who started in October, will serve as a bridge between the Office of Sustainability, the Division of Waste Collection, and the public. Educational materials such as decals or stickers outlining what can and cannot be recycled will be placed on carts.

“We want to provide as much information as we can and be upfront,” said Wood. “That’s how we’re going to get good results.”

In terms of enforcement, the city is not going to ticket people who repeatedly contaminate their recycling bins. They’ll just un-enroll them. “Our enforcement action will be to pull the can and just remove them from the program,” Wood said.

The city is expected to add up to six staffed recycling drop-offs once the program begins. Right now, there are recycling drop-offs at Ridge Road and the Carr Center, but the materials are not being recycled because the city does not have a contract.

Although the city’s recycling rate is around 2%, compared with 9% in Lakewood and Shaker Heights, according to the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District, the goal is to increase that number, Wood said. The city’s climate action plan calls for achieving a rate of around 30% for residential properties by 2030. Wood said that by growing the opt-in program and focusing on the city’s circular economy initiative, which aims to help businesses and residents reduce and reuse waste, the city can get closer to its long-term goal.

“Clevelanders are passionate and committed about this, and we think we have a program that will meet that passion in a way that works and will allow us to grow it over time,” he said, adding that additional components of the Circular Cleveland initiative will be rolled out starting next year.

Resident reactions

What do residents and sustainability leaders think of the new opt-in recycling program? The reactions we found in talking with people across the city were mixed.

Deb Smith with Clean Garbage Recycling in Tremont, a startup that was founded in response to the city halting its recycling program, said that she’s concerned so few of the city’s 150,000-plus households have signed up. “I don’t think they have a very good way of getting the word out, honestly,” Smith said, citing misinformation and confusion she’d seen on social media and lingering distrust from the city’s botched recycling program in the past.

Ward 12 council member Tony Brancatelli is concerned about the low response rate from east side residents. “It depends what side of the river I’m on,” he said of residents’ responses. “The west side people are very familiar with opt-in and we’ve gotten a strong response. On the east side it’s the opposite. And there’s the digital divide we’ve got to contend with.”

Brancatelli said the city should have a stronger program for education and enforcement and he’s concerned that an opt-in program may never achieve the city’s recycling goals.

Stefanie Valentic, a Circular Cleveland ambassador who is editorial director of the national magazine Waste360, said the city needs to do more to convince people who are skeptical and distrustful. Valentic cited other cities such as Baltimore that are further ahead with their recycling programs.

Divya Sridhar, manager of climate resilience and sustainability with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, helps coordinate the Circular Cleveland initiative, which aims to help city residents and businesses reduce and reuse waste materials. She said opt-in recycling is the way to go but the city’s efforts can’t stop there.

Sridhar said Circular Cleveland, a 30-month initiative to reduce and reuse waste in Cleveland through circular economy strategies and programs, is working with stakeholders to develop an action plan that it will release in January. For more information, visit their website:

“The bigger thing is if implementation with recycling goes well, that’s a good first step, but it’s only a first step,” she said. “We need to rethink how things are consumed and which materials go into the trash. The onus is not just on residents and the city, but also on developers and businesses.”

Sign up for the city’s new opt-in recycling program here: Here’s the folder of marketing materials: The city of Cleveland is hosting its annual Sustainable Cleveland summit on Wed. Oct. 20 and Thurs. Oct. 21. Register here:

Interested in public records? Sign up for the Solutions Journalism Network’s public records course here:

Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.

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