Clean Garbage Recycling Co-Op allows residents to do what the rest of Cleveland can’t: recycle

Posted at 6:12 PM, Dec 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-29 18:35:52-05

CLEVELAND — The City of Cleveland is hoping that 2021, contracting with a recycling consultant, and new recycling education brings a new recycling contract for the city.

The city didn’t accept a bid for a new recycling contract because it said the cost was too high. One of the main reasons Cleveland’s recycling program couldn’t be maintained was because Clevelanders appear to be pretty bad at recycling.

“The big challenge is educating people how to do it right,” said 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.”

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.

Without a recycling contract, the materials Clevelanders put into recycling bins at the curb since April 1, 2020, have been dumped into the landfill with other trash.

“So there was an urgency to get something going,” said Tremont resident Debbie Smith.

That urgency led Smith and two other people to create Clean Garbage Recycling, a Co-Op with labeled bins and collection locations around Tremont taking aluminum, steel, and paper to be recycled.

Clean Garbage Recycling has placed bins like these around Tremont to help people recycling aluminum and steel.

“I think there’s a lot of people that really want to do the right thing, that want to do recycling,” said Smith.

The effort started at a local farmer’s market and eventually rolled out the bins throughout the neighborhood in the fall.

The large collection container for paper and cardboard behind the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Smith says, is usually emptied out every two weeks when the company places them in other communities.

Tremont is filling up this paper collector so quickly that Smith says it has to be emptied twice as often as usual.

“In Tremont, they’re [emptying] it once a week and sometimes I have to call them and say, ‘Hey, it’s full,” said Smith.

Smith and Clean Garbage Recycling are basically stepping in to do the work that a city and recycling-sorting businesses normally do.

Clean Garbage Recycling is not only collecting materials to recycle but also trying to find businesses that can turn recycled materials into new products. Engaging in that process shows just how hard it is.

Smith is left to collect the materials and deliver them to a scrap yard herself until the operation can scale up.

“The reason we’re working on clean steel, clean aluminum is quite frankly, that’s all we can find a market for right now,” said Smith.

So far, Smith is taking only what she’s able to drive to a local scrap yard herself. She says the Co-Op might eventually offer curbside recycling for a small fee, making it easier for residents to take part and making the Co-Op a little bit of money to keep operating.

Smith’s ultimate goal is to help people consume less, creating fewer items to throw out and recycle in the first place, ironically, threatening her business model.

“If we got put out of business, I’d love it,” said Smith. “That would be the best thing ever.”

Signs tell community members what should go into the bin, and just as importantly, what should not.

Smith isn’t alone.

Maggie Breloff created a map that helps Cuyahoga County Residents find where they can recycle various recyclable materials.

“A lot of my neighbors have been asking how to recycle since the city contract expired last spring,” Breloff told News 5 in an email. “This map shows people who live in the area places that they can take glass elsewhere in Cuyahoga County until our curbside recycling resumes.”

“If we had a house right here and every time someone used something, I’d say, ‘Oh, don’t throw that away, just stick it in the backroom here,’ I mean, that’s what we’re doing,” said Smith. “How long is your house going to be habitable before the whole darn thing is filled up with garbage?”

holiday recycling
PHOTO: Cans and plastic bottles are acceptable if they're empty, clean and dry.

That’s why Smith says recycling properly might be hard, but it’s an uphill battle worth fighting.

“The whole mentality [around recycling] has got to change and am I going to change the whole mentality? Maybe not,” said Smith. “But maybe I can work in my own little neighborhood here.”

In the meantime, the City of Cleveland is working with a consultant to figure out how the city can better recycle and potentially get another recycling contract.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s office tells News 5:

The consultant continues to meet the expected deadlines. City council requested an additional meeting with the consultant in January to provide additional input for inclusion in the draft report. Due to this accommodation, the draft will now come mid Jan.

If you want to join the Clean Garbage Recycling Co-Op, you can email Smith at

If you want more information about what is recyclable and where you can bring items that are too large for the curb, go to

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