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Seeing Green: Cleveland's Efforts to Ditch Plastic Straws, Tax Plastic Bags, and Fine for Improper Waste Disposal 

click to enlarge ARTWORK BY ERIC MILLIKIN
  • Artwork by Eric Millikin

On Aug. 1, the city of Cleveland will resume issuing citations to residents who fail to comply with the city's curbside recycling protocol. After a two-year suspension of $100 fines — a suspension demanded by city council during a rash of the fines in 2016 — officials now feel that folks have had enough time to get educated.

"Compliance is essential to our efforts to become a greener and cleaner Cleveland," said Public Works director Michael Cox, in a statement last week. "Our goal is to educate residents early so everyone is in compliance by August 1st."

The city's in a tough spot. It wants residents to want to recycle, and to recycle properly; but it feels that without punitive measures, the situation will only get worse.

Worse means "more expensive."

Diane Bickett, executive director of the county's solid waste district, explains why. She tells Scene from her office in Garfield Heights that people often put plastics in their recycling containers that they feel should be recycled, even if they're not acceptable items.

"We call it wish-cycling," she says. "People want to recycle everything, wishing that someone will figure out what to do with it. Or, in the case of Cleveland, people get rid of their garbage in their recycling cart. That's what has prompted the city to clamp down."

When the city ships these alleged recyclables to the Kimble Recycling & Disposal material recovery facility ("merf," among industry pros) in Twinsburg, it costs more for the Kimble operators when there's lots of trash and contaminated pieces of recycling mixed in. (Looking at you, greasy pizza boxes, plastic clamshells, Solo cups.)

This trash must then be trucked off to one of a handful of area landfills. Sometimes, items like plastic bags get caught in the machinery, which Bickett assures Scene is state of the art. All of those costs are then, in some fashion, passed on to municipal clients like the city of Cleveland.

"[Non-compliance] is costing the city in terms of rejected loads at recycling plants, so they have to capture that money back," Bickett said in June, when the city fines were first announced. "Sometimes, a punitive measure like a fine is the only thing people will respond to."

Well, all this represents a pretty stark reversal of the trajectory that Bickett and her impassioned team of six have been pursuing since the Waste District was established in 1988 as part of a state law.

"For 20 years, our mission was to expand recycling opportunities," Bickett says. "When we worked with communities on contracts for curbside recycling services, we were pushing the merfs to take more and more items."

Steadily, due in large part to the growth of the international recycling market — i.e., China — an increasing variety of plastics could be sold as recyclable material. Traditional waste management companies expanded to recycling services because there was a huge demand for it in the '90s, Bickett says, and vertical integration meant that municipalities could contract with a single entity for their entire suite of waste-collection needs.

But recently, China has drastically cut its material imports. Bickett, who reads the industry trade journals with an assiduousness not seen since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, estimated that China had been receiving roughly 30 percent of all U.S. recyclable material for years. Within a couple of years, though, thanks to China's "National Sword" program, which restricts the importation of recyclable commodities, the percentage will go down to zero.

"We kind of exploited China," says Bickett. "When I say 'we' I'm talking about the world. And as a nation, we became so reliant on China to take our materials, we really stopped investing in manufacturing capacity here in the U.S. to make recycled products. It's been a rude wake-up call to everyone in our industry."

So now, she says, the mission has changed.

"What we've got is a waste problem," Bickett says. "We just create too much of it. So we're focusing our attention on waste reduction and the actions individuals can take to stop producing so much garbage."

Various initiatives — some on social media, some in county classrooms — have aimed at making local residents more responsible consumers, alerting them to the fact that, for example, each Cuyahoga County dweller produces 2,000 pounds of waste per year.

"Reduce. Reuse. Recycle." Bickett recites the familiar slogan. "We're going back to basics in what we communicate."

Among other things, the Solid Waste District has been pushing for residents to reduce their use of single-use plastics: items like plastic take-out containers, plastic utensils and Solo cups, all of which end up landfills. Bickett reminds Scene that there are alternative choices people can make to reduce their reliance on them: Water bottles, for example. Lunch boxes. Silverware.

Listing off a few tips, Bickett suggests buying eggs in a recyclable fiber carton instead of a plastic one, and buying yogurt in a large container instead of a batch of individual serving sizes.

"And of course, there's 'skip the straw'" Bickett says, referencing a popular initiative that has been picking up steam locally and nationally.

Bickett happens to be sipping her ice water from a metallic straw, and Scene sees fit to point it out.

"These were four for five bucks at Target," she says, smiling. "Stainless steel."

***

Eric Williams, the owner of Momocho in Ohio City and El Carnicero in Lakewood, recently announced that he'd be joining a handful of other local restaurateurs — Sam McNulty of Market Garden, Matt Fish of Melt Bar and Grilled, among others — in skipping the straw throughout their organizations.

He tells Scene over the phone that the initiative is merely the latest in a series of efforts he's taken to make his businesses more environmentally friendly.

"We already use brown paper recycled [cocktail napkins], corn-starch forks and knives in to-go boxes, and recycled paper bags for carry-out orders," Williams says, "but the straws were the last step."

Williams says that he goes through an enormous number of straws. And in that regard, he's a lot like the rest of us. The oft-cited statistic, produced by a 9-year-old Vermont boy named Milo Cress, is that Americans discard 500 million plastic straws per day. The figure has been cited by environmental groups and mainstream national media outlets for years — USA Today, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times.

The Times, in a recent report, said that more "rigorous market research" puts the actual figure in the range of 170 to 390 million straws per day. But Cress' figure, at which he arrived after conducting a phone survey of straw manufacturers eight years ago, helped to raise awareness and incite a movement to limit wasteful straw usage. The city of Seattle, notably, has passed legislation to completely ban plastic straws from city establishments.

At Momocho, Williams says that every margarita sampler they serve comes with three straws. And that's going to change.

Williams has been buying straws in bulk at an estimated cost of 10 plastic straws per penny. Now, he'll be purchasing biodegradable five-inch cocktail straws — and only providing one per margarita sampler — and has sourced individually wrapped plastic straws to have on hand for customers who ask for them. These might be elderly patrons, children, or customers with disabilities, Williams says. When purchased in bulk, these individually wrapped straws come out to a cost of 2.8 cents a piece.

"If I were buying a million of them, I'd be taking a big hit," he says, when asked about the implications of the higher cost, "but the goal is to use a lot less. We want to train people not to use them. Now, we're not saying we're better or worse than anybody — we'll have them if people want them — but this is a way to do the right thing in a non-confrontational way."

There are steeper costs associated with other recyclable materials too. Williams cites, for example, his 2-ounce souffle cups. He's been ordering them in batches of 2,500 for $38, he says. But the corn-starch 2-ounce cups that he's now adopting will cost him $88 for a batch of only 2,000.

"It can be quite dramatic," Williams says.

But it's a price he says he's willing to pay to set a positive example and to build good will in the community.

"If we can help make a difference, we should help make a difference," he says. "Some of this stuff is just common sense."

Williams also says that he's following in the footsteps of guys like Sam McNulty and Matt Fish.

"I love Sam and Matt," Williams says. "Guys like that, with a lot of locations, they're setting the tone for the rest of us. And I want to make sure I'm keeping pace. I want to be part of this journey."

When Channel 19 covered McNulty's transition to paper straws earlier this summer, McNulty told a reporter that customers were extremely happy about that decision. And he says the same thing when Scene asks for updates.

"They're literally overjoyed," he says, adding that once the company's environmental goals are explained, patrons are thrilled to forego the plastic and become ambassadors for the cause.

When Scene goes to Nano Bar on West 25th Street (one of McNulty's joints) to corroborate, we see what he's talking about. We ask a bartender for a straw, and an inebriated patron leans over to set us straight. "No straws here," he reports. "We're saving the environment, dude."

Like Williams, McNulty's restaurants have shifted to a policy where straws aren't automatic: Customers can ask for them if they need them or want them. But unlike Williams, McNulty has shifted to a paper product.

And on that front, there's been a slight wrinkle. McNulty says there's really only one manufacturer of paper straws, a company called Aardvark, and that it was "caught by surprise" by paper straws' recent ascendancy.

"It's completely unable to keep up with demand," McNulty says, "All bulk distribution sources we've talked to, including Amazon, are out of stock."

So McNulty says he's talked to the local Ace Paper Tube manufacturer on Denison Avenue to see if they might be willing to start manufacturing paper straws locally.

"They seemed perplexed that anyone would want to buy paper straws," he says. "I told them I'd buy them by the pallet. There's definitely a business opportunity here."

***

While individual consumer choice is an important aspect of any broad environmental effort, legislative action is even more critical.

And in Ohio —- a lot like in the United States at large — enacting sensible environmental policy is virtually impossible, given the deference legislators pay to business interests.

Take plastic bags. Last year, Cuyahoga County council, led by councilwoman Sunny Simon, introduced an ordinance that would impose a fee on plastic bags (and paper bags) at big grocery stores and restaurants. There were a number of caveats that seemed designed to preempt the concerns of opponents: The fee would not apply to small businesses, for example; any establishment smaller than 7,000 square feet would be exempted. Those with WIC cards would not be required to pay the fee. Everyone would have access to free reusable bags at senior centers and family service centers, etc.

The whole point of the legislation, according to Simon, was to encourage county residents to use reusable bags, and to fund efforts to clean up Lake Erie.

Cleveland is now enforcing waste collection fines. - PHOTO COURTESY CITY OF CLEVELAND
  • Photo courtesy City of Cleveland
  • Cleveland is now enforcing waste collection fines.

"If anyone should do this, it's us," Simon said last October, when the ordinance was being discussed in county committees. Her thinking was that Cuyahoga County borders a lake, and we ought to take some responsibility for ensuring its cleanliness. Six cents of the proposed 10-cent fee would fund lake cleanup efforts. The other four would offset the costs of the program's implementation.

And yet, the legislation stalled. Opponents were unmoved by the moral and environmental arguments — they held that because plastic bags weren't the lake's primary pollutants, it didn't make sense to put a fee on them — and said the ordinance would harm businesses.

The Ohio Retail Merchants Association and the American Progressive Bag Alliance rallied their lobbyists to oppose the bill and drum up opposition.

And because this is Ohio, opposing the bill locally wasn't enough. As Simon and councilman Dale Miller planned to re-introduce the bill, pre-emptive ordinances were drawn up at the state late last year.

Much like the ordinance drafted by Uber lobbyists that prevents any municipality from taxing or regulating ride-sharing companies like Uber, the plastic bag state law would prohibit any municipal corporation from "imposing a tax, fee, assessment, or other charge on auxiliary containers," (aka bags).

State Rep. George Lang (R-West Chester Twp.) co-sponsored the bill on the House side. There was a concurrent bill introduced in the senate (SB210), but Lang became the face of the legislation when he testified on its behalf with his colleague Scott Lipps this spring. Lang placed a plastic bag over his head to show how versatile the containers are: This was intended to show how plastic bags keep his hearing-aid dry in the rain, he later clarified on Twitter.

When Scene catches up with him by phone, he confirms our hypothesis and says the bill is "primarily aimed to help business." Lang is a business-owner himself and says there's actually a plastic bag manufacturer in his district.

When we ask why the imposition must be statewide — if he doesn't want a fee, fine, but why shouldn't Cuyahoga County be allowed to impose one if voters want to? — he says having different taxing situations across the state is a nightmare for businesses.

"Imagine the complexity," Lang says, "if you have one set of rules in one corner of the state and a whole different set of rules in another. This is all about reducing the cost and complexity for business. Ohio has over 6,000 taxing jurisdictions in the state. That's more taxing jurisdictions than California or Illinois. We want to make it easier for business to do business in the state, not harder."

When Scene suggests that the state already seems pretty business friendly to us, Lang says that's not at all the case.

"USA Today had a piece this year that showed Ohio was the seventh-highest state for people moving out. People are leaving this state to find economic opportunity elsewhere," Lang says. "And the states that are kicking our ass are even more business friendly than we are."

Lang's state senate colleague Bill Coley testified on similar grounds in December of last year. He said that while local communities may be well-intentioned in their efforts to impose fees on plastic bags, "any change should be lead through private efforts and statewide initiatives."

Erin Huber, executive director of the nonprofit Drink Local, Drink Tap, is currently working on a project in Uganda, but still finds time to respond to our email about the local recycling scene. She mentions off the cuff that in neighboring Rwanda, airport agents check passengers' luggage for plastic bags: They aren't even allowed in the country.

It goes without saying that Huber and her organization enthusiastically support Simon's county legislation. Drink Local, Drink Tap leads summer beach cleanups at Edgewater every year and has had a hugely successful summer. She says that 191 volunteers participated in a beach cleanup on Earth Day, the highest participation since 2010. And this month, 36 volunteers picked up 170 pounds of litter, primarily disposable plastics, bottles, food wrappers and cigar tips.

Huber says she thinks local council members aren't sufficiently educated on environmental issues and their local impacts.

"If they were, [the plastic bag fee] would be a no-brainer," she says. "We are not the first people to have this conversation, and to me, it's low hanging fruit. Plastics are harmful. Not only do they normally package un-nutritious foods, but they create an environment that we aren't proud of. When people live in clean places, they are perceived to be more safe, we have more pride in our community and it trickles into other things ... If we see garbage in our streets, it makes it to our Great Lake, and this cycle continues, this attitude that Cleveland and our lake are not worthy of care. I'm not okay with that."

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