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Report Recommends Revamp For Cleveland Waste, Recycling Programs

The report highlights a need for regular communication with residents about proper recycling techniques. [WKSU File Photo]
A recycling bin full of cleaned out plastic containers.

Updated: 1:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 26, 2021

A firm  contracted to analyze Cleveland’s waste management system is recommending the city make significant changes to recycling, bulk and trash collection, including a move to an opt-in, fee-based recycling program.

The recommendations come after the city began  sending recyclables to landfills last year, when the Division of Waste’s recycling contract expired.

The report from GT Environmental, released to the public this week, calls on the city to improve communication and education around proper recycling techniques and the bulk pickup program. It also offers three different approaches for redesigning the Cleveland’s waste collection, ranging from high investment diversion plans to a low investment option focused on making systems already in place more efficient.

“It’s an integrated system that involves regular trash pickup, recycling, bulk pickup, all of these special waste streams that we also collect at various locations,” Cleveland Chief of Sustainability Jason Wood told ideastream Friday. “It’s been a process for us to work through to focus on, how do we do that in the most effective and efficient manner?”

Under the low-investment “Reset and Re-Build” option recommended in the report, the city would continue weekly trash pickup but shift to an opt-in or targeted recycling program and appointment-based weekly bulk pickup option.

“This option allows the City to restart its recycling program with significant participation options available to residents from all demographics and household units,” according to the report.

Additional changes to yard waste collection, special materials pick-ups and drop-off options are included in the recommended plan as well.

Cleveland's existing waste-removal model includes weekly trash collection and weekly single-stream recycling collection for all households, plus a once-a-month bulk collection with a limit on the number of items each household can dispose of. The recommended changes to bulk pickup toward bi-weekly appointments is more in line with what the community has asked for, Wood said.

“That’s really based on feedback we’ve heard from the community and other stakeholders that bulk collection probably needs to be more frequent,” he said.

The change to recycling pickup would reduce contamination, according to the report. The city has a 60 percent contamination rate for its recyclables, GT Environmental said, in comparison to 20 percent for comparable communities.

“Contamination of the collected single-stream recyclables by trash or other recyclable materials that were not acceptable in the program was excessive,” according to the report.

But the opt-in model would mean a fee for participating households and is likely to have a lower participation rate than the current model, the report said, though the city could improve participation with education and awareness campaigns.

“What we really want to do is, we want to start to drive that contamination rate down, so that more of what gets put in the blue cans by participants ends up being recycled, as opposed to being landfilled,” Wood said. “We’ve heard very clearly from the community about interest in curbside recycling, so we anticipate a healthy and robust participation in that program.”

Cleveland already needed more comprehensive education around its recycling and waste removal programs before new options were being considered, according to the report. Enforcement and consistency needs improvement, according to the study, and the city can help residents by providing more accurate and understandable information on its websites. Other options, like making sure recycling and trash collection trucks look distinct from each other, also would help.

“It’s really [about] keeping people engaged and informed about what is, in fact, recyclable, and some of the things you need to do as you work through that,” Wood said.

GT Environmental also recommends hiring a recycling coordinator, building relationships with third-party recycling drop-off locations and collaborating with local universities and institutions or other nearby communities on waste management solutions.

A collection routes overhaul also would improve efficiency, the consultants said. Cleveland has about 70 collection routes, though the general recommendation is to have 20 percent more trucks than routes. Currently, Cleveland has between 65 and 72 trucks available, said GT Environmental consultant Jim Skora, at one of the  interim updates on the recycling review earlier this year.

“As we move deeper into the implementation phase of this project, we may look at route optimization, ways to become more efficient within that,” Wood said. “But people can still expect to have their regular trash pickup on a weekly basis.”

During those late January and early February updates, city officials tentatively accepted some of the consultants’ recommendations – including the opt-in recycling program and a transition to appointment-based bulk pickup.

The next steps for the process will be planning for implementation, Wood said. The city will phase in different parts of the plan over time, he said, but a timeline has not yet been determined. One of the priorities is restoring recycling capabilities, he said.

“How do we get a contract in place for a material recovery facility? Where are we going to deliver our recyclables to? And sort of, run some things in parallel,” Wood said. “I would anticipate that as we move through the next quarter or so, we will be able to speak to a lot more of those specifics.”

GT Environmental declined to be interviewed for this story.