A PATH FORWARD ON RECYCLING
The market for recyclable material has collapsed nationally and locally. Cleveland’s once profitable recycling program has been discontinued. But that does not mean that we should do nothing. There is a path forward. This path includes long term solutions that create a local market for recycling and a short term path that continues to recycle those products where there is still a market.
How Did We Get Here?
Back in April, with little notice to the public or to City Council, the City of Cleveland shut down its waste recycling operation, effectively mixing recyclable items with rancid garbage and sending it all to landfills.
The recyclable operation is still idle today with no sign of restarting soon, and people are outraged. I understand their anger, but it should not be directed to the city alone as this is a very complex problem with no easy solutions.
City workers had been collecting recyclable items from residential tree lawns and taking them to a transfer station where a private recyclable vendor hauled them away for processing.
In April, that vendor’s contract expired, and initially no one bid on the contract. It was rebid, but only one recycling company submitted a bid — but that deal would have cost the city an additional $6 million a year, so it was rejected.
The city acted responsibly by not accepting that bid.
But that doesn’t help us get out of where we are today — still without a recycling program.
Unfortunately, the global market for recyclable items has collapsed, leaving cities with huge stockpiles of plastic, metal, and paper and few takers of this material.
Not so long ago, Cleveland was being paid $20 a ton for recyclable materials but by the end of 2018, the price dropped to $1.50 a ton.
At the same time, China, a major buyer of U.S. recyclables, imposed severe restrictions on the type of materials as well as unclean or contaminated materials, dealing a major blow to Cleveland which has a high rate of its recyclable waste stream contaminated. China said it would no longer accept contamination rates higher than 0.5 percent.
So, while we can’t blame Cleveland on something out of its hands — global economics, the City can and should be held accountable for its communication, or lack thereof, on this important issue. The city administration’s sin is that of omission for not properly notifying the public or the council of the demise of the recycling operation. I first heard about it through the angry voices of my constituents. And that anger reminded me of the movie “Cool Hand Luke” in which the chain gang captain — having just beaten up Luke — declares, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
The Path Forward
The City of Cleveland is committed to developing a plan to deal with our solid waste stream. It will almost certainly not look like the curbside recycling program we are used to, but it will ensure that we are sending less waste to the landfill.
Long Term Planning
The City of Cleveland needs a comprehensive, long-term plan to deal with its solid waste stream. And any long term solution for the City of Cleveland must have two essential components: 1) a plan to reduce or eliminate our reliance on landfills, and 2) an economic development component that creates local markets for recycling. Currently, there are no material recovery facilities in the City of Cleveland. Thus, anywhere we send our solid waste, there is an additional air quality cost and transportation cost associated with disposal. That is why we need to develop local markets and local solutions to process our recyclable material and all of our solid waste.
While We are Waiting….
The City has hired a consultant to assess and make recommendations for updating our solid waste system. But this could take months and full implementation of any new program will take at least a full year.
While we move forward with a long term solution, we also need an immediate solution to keep public confidence and to work through these changes in the recycling market.
Pick One Thing And Make Do it Right
So while we are waiting for that assessment, I propose we begin some limited recycling. We need to focus on those products where there is still demand and a market for recyclable products. According to the City of Cleveland’s Office of Sustainability and the Cuyahoga Solid Waste District, there is still a strong market for fiber-paper and cardboard. So I propose that we focus just on paper and cardboard while we decide on the long term solution. We should be filling our blue bins with only those items and recouping whatever funds the market will support.
Educating the Public
As for Cleveland’s reported high rate of contamination, by choosing just one profitable recyclable product, we can begin a very focused, aggressive campaign to inform the public on the details of proper recycling, thereby reducing contamination in our recycling stream.
Remember, everyone must contribute to this effort if we are to succeed in managing our solid waste in a responsible manner.
The suspension of the curbside recycling program came as a shock to many. But national and international recycling markets left Cleveland with little choice. So while I am willing to be patient as a long term solution is developed, we need to stop putting profits in the landfill for those products where a market remains, namely paper and cardboard. I have proposed this solution during a Cleveland City Council hearing in May, it is time to implement.