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Cleveland's Recyclables, Trash 'Going To The Same Place,' Mayor Says

Workers sort recycling material at Kimble Companies' facility in Twinsburg. [Margaret Cavalier and Mary Fecteau / ideastream]
a conveyer belt in a recycling facility, from above, with two workers beside it.

Cleveland City Council members are calling for hearings after revelations that the city’s curbside recycling goes to the landfill just like regular trash.

Mayor Frank Jackson acknowledged this week that the city’s contract for recycling disposal expired at the beginning of April. Only one bid was submitted for a new contract – one that proposed hauling material to Southwest Ohio at a cost too high for the administration’s liking.

“As of right now, there is no separate deposit of recycled material,” Jackson said Tuesday on a call with reporters. “They’re all going to the same place now, and they’ll continue going to the same place until we can have a bid that is more in line with being affordable.”

Jackson was answering a question posed by Fox 8 News, which has been investigating the city’s recycling program for months.

The revelations prompted calls for hearings from Councilmen Charles Slife and Kerry McCormack.

Cleveland faces a problem that is dogging municipal recycling programs across the country: the plummeting price of recyclables driven by a global glut. China stopped accepting U.S. material in 2018, disrupting the recycling market.

“Cities like Cleveland that used to get a rebate for their recycling, or weren’t paying for recycling processing, are now looking to have to pay a fee,” Diane Bickett, the director of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District, told ideastream. “And cities with more contamination are having to pay a higher fee.”

That contamination — the inclusion of non-recyclable material like plastic bags, food waste or scrap metal — poses a second problem for the city. As much as 68 percent of Cleveland’s recycling is considered “contaminated,” according to a news release from the mayor’s office.

Curbside recycling programs are limited in what they can accept, Bickett said. The solid waste district keeps a list of recyclables on its website.

“We just usually say empty, clean and dry, but you don’t have to get every last bit of peanut butter out of the jar,” Bickett said. “That’s not contamination. What contamination is is people putting plastic film and plastic bags in their recycling that tangle in the recycling equipment.”

Cleveland is asking a consultant for help putting its waste management affairs in order, the mayor’s office said.

Meanwhile, Cuyahoga County suburbs continue to recycle as usual, Bickett said. Contractors haul suburban recyclables to processing facilities in Twinsburg, Akron and Lorain County.

Clevelanders can still drop off recyclables at  several sites throughout the city

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.