Recycling is back in Cleveland: Here’s what you need to know

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland’s return to recycling last week collected 11 tons of recyclables in only the first day and a half of collections — a modest, but promising feat that signals the end of a long hiatus during which all of the city’s trash went straight to landfill.

Although it is still early days, and city officials readily concede that there may be hurdles along the way, they are framing the relaunch of the recycling program as largely successful in the previous first week — 26 months after the old program was discontinued in April 2020 , amid problems with non-recyclable items polluting entire transportation operations.

Mayor Justin Bibb’s new approach aims to reduce pollution to keep the program viable, which means city residents must proactively sign up for the service.

“The idea is that if you’re doing it voluntarily, it’s something you’re going to do right,” said recycling coordinator Ryan Broomfield.

This philosophy means that the program’s success is down to residents’ understanding of how to recycle properly and how the city is leading what Brumfield described as a “major behavior change campaign” to educate them about what can and can’t be put in recycling bins.

Despite the official re-launch, which began on June 13, there are many unknowns, costs and logistical challenges ahead.

For more than two years, blue recycling carts have been a second litter box for Cleveland families, so changing these habits will be key. Some residents are already feeling frustrated or confused by the new process, according to reports from various city council members.

For example, Brian Mooney, of Ward 11, said some of those who didn’t choose to sign up didn’t understand why their bins were emptied into garbage trucks, while neighbors’ trash was collected by a recycling truck. Meanwhile, in Ward 2, Kevin Bishop suspects, more residents won’t start signing up until the city begins reclaiming boxes from families who haven’t yet registered.

“We expect people to experience some stress when we start taking their cans, but that is why we hope they will join the recycling program,” Bishop said.

But for the most part, council members and other officials said residents are excited about the return of recycling, and are willing to participate. Broomfield expects any hurdles to be ironed out as the city returns to recycling in the coming weeks and months.

In view of the recycling return, cleveland.com The Plain Dealer sought answers to common questions and how the new program works. This is what we found.

How do I recycle?

Residents can sign up by filling out an online form at clerecycles.com, or by calling 216-664-3030. In about one month, the city will mail you a set of posters and instructions. Labels should be placed on the container, so recycling crews can identify which households have subscribed. The contents in the blue boxes with the stickers will be recycled. The subscription period ends on July 31st. (Additional recording periods may occur in the future, but these details have not been specified.)

What if I don’t participate, or I haven’t received my stickers yet?

Unlabeled blue bins will continue to be emptied into garbage trucks. But this is only temporary. Early in August—but likely later in the fall—the city will collect all the blue boxes from families who didn’t sign up.

If you signed up, but don’t have stickers yet, Brumfield said to wait hard and check your mailbox over the next few weeks. The first batch of residents who registered in late 2021 already had stickers, but the city is still working on distributing stickers to residents who registered this year. Do not register multiple times. Officials said feel free to call 311 once to check the status of your subscription, but that additional inquiries are unnecessary.

Before the boxes are withdrawn later this year, city officials plan to notify residents who haven’t registered, and give them another chance to participate.

What should I recycle?

Broomfield’s rule of thumb for what can be recycled: bottles, jars, jugs and tubs. Plastic cups are generally okay, as are Starbucks iced coffee cups. Individual party cups are not recyclable.

Don’t put plastic bags of any kind in the trash, including grocery bags or plastic wrap over water boxes. Styrofoam and shellfish takeout containers are not recyclable.

Focus on the types of items listed above, and don’t care too much about the little recycling symbol and plastic number printed on the items, Broomfield recommends.

Well-meaning people often act like “motorcyclists,” but this only exacerbates the pollution problem, he said. They throw away any plastic because they want to reuse it, but doing so ends up sending more items to landfill and potentially costing Cleveland more money.

When in doubt, throw it in the trash to prevent contamination, Broomfield said.

The full list of instructions can be found at sustainable.

How much do you sign up for?

Nearly 32,000 households — out of 150,000 eligible — were registered as of last week, according to Brumfield. (While 27,000 registered late last year and 11,000 registered this year, some may be duplicates, so the exact number is unknown.)

The city expects the program’s popularity to continue to grow, as it did with the Columbus opt-in program, which has seen participation increase over time, said Fran DiDonato, Pape’s sustainability strategist.

The city hopes to have 50,000 sign-ups by the end of next month, but it is unclear whether it will meet that goal.

Registrations jumped on the first day of the new program — from an average of 100 or 200 per day to 1,100 on Mondays, Brumfield said.

Why rambeki?

Cleveland has a five-year contract with Rumpke Waste & Recycling, outside of Cincinnati.

Didonato Rumpke has been described as the largest recycling company in Ohio and one of the most “innovative” companies in the country. Didonato said Rumpke accepts more items than other recyclers, which means that fewer items are considered contaminants. She said the company is also building a new processing facility in Columbus that should be able to accept more types of items when it opens in 2024.

Furthermore, about 80% of the materials that Rumpke processes are sold to companies in the Midwest that recycle them into consumer goods. All of that stays in the United States, she said, and a large portion of it stays in Ohio.

For example, some of the glass recycled by Rumpke goes to Perrysburg-based Owens Illinois glass manufacturer, which turns it back into usable products quickly.

Didonato said recycled items such as cardboard are processed into new cardboard within about a week after being picked up on the curbside. glazing takes about 30 days; Cans take about two months, she said.

“It’s all about the circular economy and keeping the dollar local,” DiDonato said.

How much does the new program cost the city’s taxpayers?

The final price tag will come down to several variables, all of which are still unknown. Base prices apply to each processed ton and total volume, according to a Bibb spokesperson. Costs are also increasing incrementally each year—ranging annually from about $643,000 at the low end to $1.3 million at the high end, although they could increase further if Cleveland produced more than 10,000 tons.

Additionally, costs per ton could increase by more than 20% if the truck ended up being heavily contaminated with non-recyclable materials. (The entire truck load will also be thrown into the trash.)

The city can also get some rebates if pollution levels are low, or if the recycled materials are the ones that generate a higher return on the resale market.

What about unused blue boxes?

The city is in the process of finding a contractor to collect all the boxes from households that are not enrolled in the recycling program. This operation is expected to cost $500,000. The cost is necessary because the city does not have the capacity to collect what would be about 100,000 bins on its own, just as it did not have the ability to deliver the bins on its own when the program began in 2007, Waste Commissioner Terrell Pruitt told council members during a May committee session.

Broomfield said the boxes in best condition — perhaps 10% of those collected, per Pruitt — would take up plenty of storage space, though city officials don’t yet know where they’ll go.

Where will the blue chests go after they are collected?

The approximately 10,000 containers the city maintains will either go to homes that choose to recycle in the future, or serve as replacements for cracked or damaged containers.

The rest – probably 90,000 or so – will go to the contractor who collects them. It’s made of “high-value plastic resin,” a Bieb spokeswoman said, noting that the city doesn’t yet know how many of these materials will be reused and how many will be recycled into new items.

Wheels on wagons first distributed by the city in 2007 to be stacked on trucks during the assembly process, according to Pruitt, will likely have to be broken so they are not likely to be reused. He said the wagons purchased after 2007 were designed differently, so they could be reused after being collected from around the city.

The chests are generally usable for 10 to 12 years, Brumfield said, so many of the chests to be raised are already past that point.