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Pick-up frequency and equity uncertainty still to be addressed by Cleveland’s new recycling plan

Posted at 4:51 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 08:36:00-05

It’s been almost a year since the City of Cleveland last sent items like cardboard, plastic bottles and glass to a recycling processing facility, and the city’s newly-announced plan to refurbish its recycling program is still months away from being implemented. A recycling contract would take time to acquire even after that.

Still, resident Brenna Davis is cautiously optimistic about what she’s seen so far in the report that is 269 pages long. You can read the full report here.

“We do need a dramatic change in the way that we do recycling,” said Davis.

"We're headed in the right direction if all these things are implemented," said Davis, after reading much of the 269-page report.

The report is a combination of a study of Cleveland’s current recycling program by consulting firm GT Environmental, a list of recommendations from the consultants and a list of what the City of Cleveland plans to attempt to implement.

Some of the big potential changes will be making Cleveland’s recycling program an opt-in program, and reducing pick-up to every other week. Residents would have to sign up for curbside recycling pick-up on the city’s website and recycling bins will be collected from addresses that have not opted in.

“Having to opt in to recycling is not going to be ideal for a lot of people,” said Davis. I think there’s going to be a lot of outrage, but I think it’s a really smart strategy because we really need to go back to basics.”

Some of the proposed changes will be new or altered services that the City of Cleveland will provide. Other changes have to do with management, communication, and personnel.

Ward 6 Cleveland City Councilmember Blaine Griffin isn’t too excited about the new collection schedule.

“Somebody’s going to have to make a heck of a case to me as to why we should move to bi-weekly [recycling collection] instead of weekly,” said Griffin.

Fewer people recycling means more items that could be reused getting put into a landfill. But since all of that material collected in Cleveland is ending up there right now anyway, Davis says the city might as well take steps to do it right.

Before 2018, large amounts of our recycling could go from our curbside bins to China. Starting in 2018, China became more selective about what it would accept, driving the demand and price for recycled materials way down.

“This doesn’t really matter because none of our stuff is being recycled anyway because there’s so much contamination,” said Davis.

In some parts of Cleveland, the study shows that around half of what was collected in recycling bins was actually trash. That high level of contamination is what caused the single bid for Cleveland’s recycling contract to be so high that the city opted to not renew the contract in 2020. Since April 2020, everything has been sent to the landfill.

This map shows the percentage of recycling contamination during a recycling audit, color-coded by the day of the week of that community's pick-up.

The city’s plan will limit who is recycling through the opt-in program, making sure that smaller group of recyclers do it right. There will be more people staffed at drop-off facilities where employees can make sure that residents dropping off recyclables aren’t adding to the contamination.

Beyond that, it will be up to the city to educate residents how to recycle better.

“I think that was a huge component to why we actually fell off,” said Griffin.

Griffin supports recycling programs but admits even he was doing it incorrectly himself, so he wants to see the city go farther with its plan to market recycling. He floated the idea of partnering with local schools to achieve that goal.

"Somebody's going to have to make a heck of a case to me as to why we should move to bi-weekly instead of weekly," said Councilman Griffin.

“I think it’s important for us to educate the community for why it is important to recycle, why it is economically sound to recycle, but, most importantly, why we’re protecting our environment,” said Griffin.

Cleveland is also considering dropping glass recycling from its program, which disappoints O-I Glass vice president of sustainability Jim Nordmeyer.

“There’s definitely a market, and it’s a shame to see this infinitely recyclable material go to waste,” said Nordmeyer.

Nordmeyer says the Governmental Affairs piece of O-I Glass could reach out to the City of Cleveland or other state-wide and federal elected officials in an attempt to promote recycling glass in Cleveland.

His Ohio-headquartered company takes recycled glass and turns it into new glass containers that can be back on store shelves within 30 days. He disagrees with some of the data in Cleveland’s recycling report about the market for glass and says municipalities are often told by recycling processing companies that including glass will drive the price up, causing some cities to opt out.

“If you want these materials, the fee is this,” said Nordmeyer, playing out the conversation between a city and recycling center. “If you want these materials, the fee is that, plus.’ And typically the glass is in the plus.”

It’s one of the many changes Davis is figuring out how to navigate.

For more than a year, the material in Cleveland's blue recycling bins have been going to the same landfill as the garbage in the city's darker bins.

If there’s an additional fee associated with opting in to the recycling program, she’s afraid even a small amount will be too much for many people.

She supports having more drop off facilities but is worried that they’ll be forced into disadvantaged communities. Councilman Griffin points out those facilities need to be accessible to all income levels, but they should be placed with input from residents.

“You can have the best plan in the world, but if it’s not rolled out in a way that is equitable and clear to people, that can sometimes make the situation worse," she said.

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