We know many of you are concerned about recycling in Cleveland, so we want to take a minute to share how we got where we are, and where we are going next.
First and foremost, the City of Cleveland remains committed to recycling. It is an important part of our long-term sustainability strategy, but in its most recent incarnation, our recycling program was not working as we needed it to work. Under our Climate Action Plan, updated in 2018, we established a goal of having a residential diversion rate of 30% by 2030. In 2017, our actual diversion rate was about 13% and in 2018, the most recent full year we have data for, it dropped to 7.5%.
So, how did we get here? There are several reasons residential recycling isn’t working in Cleveland and the US. For starters, Cleveland, like most cities, relied heavily on foreign markets – primarily China – to take our unwanted (and often very dirty) recyclable materials from us. This created a steady market for the materials, which kept costs relatively low.
In 2018, China implemented its National Sword Policy which fundamentally changed the recycling system. By banning over twenty types of materials and putting much stricter contamination rules in place, they effectively closed their borders to our recycling. Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), the place where your recyclables go to be sorted, processed, and sold, could no longer sell their recyclables overseas. So, to stay profitable, they became stricter in the materials they would accept from cities, as well as the amount of contamination they would accept for recycling. Many MRFs would reject whole loads of recycling if they were too contaminated to process. Which brings us to our second challenge- contamination.
Many of you reading this are likely dedicated and diligent recyclers who take the extra time to properly sort and rinse your materials before placing them in your recycling bin. However, this is not always the case. Many times we have “wishful recyclers” who hope the materials they put out could be recycled (for example: garden hoses, children’s toys, yard waste, paint cans, etc.), even though the sorting systems at the MRFs are not equipped to handle these. Their hearts are in the right place, but these types of practices help drive up sorting costs for our MRFs.
Others may just be confused about what should or should not go in the bin. This is understandable. There are so many different types of products in our waste streams and the lists of accepted materials have changed many times over the last 10 years. This can be hard to keep up with. Lastly, there are others who simply treat their recycling bin as a second trash can. Our contamination numbers don’t lie – based on a physical audit of our MRF in 2019, about 68% of our recycling is contaminated and has to be sent to a landfill.
If you've been following recycling nationally and locally for the past couple of years, much of this is not new to you. What’s new is that Cleveland no longer has a recycling contract to process these materials. Under our previous contract, we made a small amount of money for every ton we recycled. As a result of changing markets and contaminated recycling streams, many MRFs have had to increase their costs to process residential recycling. After multiple attempts to bid out a contract for recycling, we received only one bid which would have cost the City more than $6 million annually to maintain the status quo. While it was a very tough decision to make, we could not justify this cost to support a system that was already experiencing challenges.
So, what are we doing about it? Where do we go from here? First, our recycling program is on hold until we are prepared to roll out a new, more effective program. We are committed to a residential recycling program and have been working closely with the Department of Public Works and Division of Waste Collection since late 2019 to identify a consultant to help us evaluate and update our curbside waste collection and recycling program. The consultant will provide program recommendations that address current market challenges, while also preparing us for anticipated market shifts in the coming years.
We are also looking at recycling options that can be put in place to provide residents with some recycling options in the interim. We will share these through our various communications channels once they are in place. Finally, Sustainable Cleveland is collecting contact information for anyone who wants to stay informed and engaged as we plan and roll out the new recycling program. We will share program updates and opportunities to provide input and feedback on the new program as they become available.
Sustainable Cleveland maintains its commitment to helping the City reduce our waste, but we also recognize the need to do it right. Our hope is that we will be able to move forward with a more successful and sustainable recycling program. One that not only provides residents options to recycle, but also supports them in overall waste reduction throughout their lives.
Thank you for your ongoing commitment to sustainability and we look forward to continuing to work together with you to make Cleveland a green city on a blue lake.
If you have any questions about Sustainable Cleveland’s role in the recycling program or would like to be added to the contact list to receive updates, please contact the Office of Sustainability at firstname.lastname@example.org.