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Looking for in-depth coverage of stories that are important to Northeast Ohio and beyond? WKSU reporters take the time to dig deeper on the stories that deserve more time, to talk to the newsmakers you want and need to hear from.

Cleveland Foresees Drastic Reduction As It Rightsizes Its Recycling Program

photo of recycling bin
Cleveland leaders say much of the material put out for curbside recycling in the city is contaminated by plastic bags or other non-recyclable items.

In Cleveland, most of the recycling residents put at the curb is not being recycled. City leaders says it’s a problem many cities are dealing with because of a changing market and contaminated items.

Cleveland has hired a consultant to help them figure out a new path forward. It will likely involve a drastic reduction in the program.

Cleveland contracts with two waste collection providers. Republic Services picks up trash and Kimble Companies picks up recycling. 

Darnell Brown, chief operations officer for the city of Cleveland, says right now the curbside pickup is continuing as normal. "We’re collecting it as we’ve always collected it," Brown said. "It goes to our transfer station where a representative of Kimble is there and they help facilitate a sorting process, and they take what they consider is to be recyclables that are not contaminated and they take that as part of their product and the rest is basically going to a landfill." 

'Recycling as it was in the City of Cleveland is obviously going to have to radically change.'

Most recycling is trashed
When asked what percentage Kimble is currently taking for recycling, Brown said he was not sure. "It’s probably somewhere in the 15% to 20% range at this point in time." He acknowledges that has changed. "It’s directly related, in our opinion, to the fact that the market has changed globally. In terms of contamination, what China’s looking for is something in the less than 1% category and that’s a high bar to get over in terms of acceptable recyclables. I’m not sure who does that," Brown said. 

Brown says Kimble used to pay the city $1.50 a ton for recyclable material. That has changed to what he calls "a budget neutral item." In the future it will be costly. 

Landfill costs less  
"Basically our contract expires in March," Brown said. "We’ll be out for bid so that as to where the pricing will come in, we’ve seen ranges anywhere from $60 to $85 or more a ton. If you compare that to the fact that our landfill cost right now is probably around $29 a ton, it does say that recycling as it was in the City of Cleveland is obviously going to have to radically change."

Brown expects the future program to be what he called more targeted. "What I mean by that is we have to totally retrofit a program that’s not curbside recycling for everybody, but probably a selective process where you can opt out of the program or we do something that looks more like a drop off site." But he says the dropoff site will be closely monitored to prevent contamination.

A program one-fifth its current size
He sees a future program for the city being much smaller than it's current one, which serves all of the city's 150,000 households. "We’re estimating at this point in time that’s probably about 30,000 households," Brown said. That's how many people he expects are motivated to recycle properly. "We think the contamination would be much more manageable, and that folks would be a lot more compliant."

Cleveland City Council has approved spending $165,000 on a consultant who will help the city rightsize its recycling program. The city is finalizing a contract with that consultant. Brown emphasizes they will continue to offer recycling. 

A Northeast Ohio native, Sarah Taylor graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where she worked at her first NPR station, WMUB. She began her professional career at WCKY-AM in Cincinnati and spent two decades in television news, the bulk of them at WKBN in Youngstown (as Sarah Eisler). For the past three years, Sarah has taught a variety of courses in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree. Sarah and her husband Scott, have two children. They live in Tallmadge.