CLEVELAND — The person spearheading the City of Cleveland’s journey back to a curbside recycling program knows what it was like to be outside city government looking in at an initiative he cared deeply about.
Ren Brumfield says he moved to Cleveland right around the time when the recycling program was starting up. News 5 Cleveland spoke with him in October 2020, before he worked for the City of Cleveland, and was instead helping local hospital systems recycle effectively through their sustainability and waste management efforts.
When the City of Cleveland started looking for someone to lead its effort to collect curbside recycling again, he thought it was a pretty unique job requiring a bunch of skills he already had.
“It’s interesting, you get to see all aspects of the problem from the inside,” said Brumfield. “Having been on the outside helped to inform how I look at it from the inside.”
Cleveland’s Recycling Woes
One of the main reasons Cleveland’s recycling program couldn’t be maintained was because Clevelanders have struggled to do it effectively in the past.
“The big challenge is educating people how to do it right,” said former Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District Executive Director Diane Bickett. “We learned from the company that was handling [Cleveland’s] material, Kimble, that it was at 65% [contamination]. So it was more trash than recycling.”
Bickett says the contamination levels in other Cuyahoga County cities excluding Cleveland is about 17 to 25%. That means Cleveland would be expected to pay much more than surrounding communities to process its recycling.
After a consultant studied Cleveland’s recycling challenges and prescribed potential solutions, the city decided the first three steps would be to:
- Hire a recycling coordinator to oversee the city’s program
- Put out bids for another recycling contract
- Allow residents to opt-in for recycling pick-up
Brumfield was hired as the recycling coordinator and a series of bids went out to initially restart the recycling program before the end of 2021. That’s also when an opt-in program opened up, allowing residents to sign up to be included in curbside pick up. So far, about 27,000 households have signed up. Brumfield hopes to allow more residents to opt-in once the city has a contract with a processor in place.
Brumfield describes it as essentially a subscription service with a dedicated group of residents who will pay more attention than the average citizen to what ends up in their recycling bin to keep contamination levels low. His hope is that once a small group of Cleveland residents is able to recycle effectively, the number of people participating will grow.
The initial goal of recycling by the end of 2021 was pushed back when the City of Cleveland and a recycling processor couldn’t agree on what Brumfield says was the finer details of a deal.
“We do have some contamination issues, or we did historically, but that’s not really the reason it fell through,” said Brumfield. “It was an accumulation of the small parts not being able to match up.”
Brumfield says he’s confident that another deal can be worked out with another processor in the next few weeks so that the city could be recycling by the spring, potentially as early as March.
How to get there
The start-stop nature of the recycling reboot in Cleveland has been frustrating for advocates like Andrea Sharb, who has been transporting her recycling to facilities that can process the material to be reused.
“I think initially there was a lot of excitement and recently, it’s turned into a lot of frustration,” said Sharb.
That’s why Brumfield says communication is going to be key between the city and the more than 27,000 households that have opted into the program so far. It’s also why he says communication has been scarce so far because recycling information depends on a contract between the city and a recycling processor that hasn’t been finalized yet.
Brumfield explains what can and can't be recycled. Watch in the media player below:
"It’s not necessarily that the City of Cleveland is going to impose some kind of rules on you, but that recycling is a collaborative effort between you, us, and the vendor that we work with to make sure that we get the materials they can process, to get those materials processed, so that they do get turned into products and back on the market,” said Brumfield. “
Once a contract is finalized, Brumfield says recycling packets will go out to opted-in households, laying out what can be recycled, and providing stickers for residents to put on their blue recycling bins, telling collectors that those bins are part of the revamped program.
Those stickers will also have updated information about what specific materials can be recycled to remind residents how to do it correctly.
“It’s about saying it in layman’s terms and regular people’s terms that ‘Here’s what we’re putting int hat bin, and here’s what we’re not putting in it,’ and a little bit about why,” said Brumfield. “So people can understand it’s not just because, ‘Ren said so.’ It’s because we want to make this a really productive and good program.
Sharb says she’s looking forward to a day when the recycling program is back up and running and even more households are opted in.
“If those 27,000 households can do it properly, then we’re good and as we grow the program and we know we’re doing a good job, then we can bring more people in, educate more people,” said Sharb.
If you want more information about Cleveland’s recycling program, click here.
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