Cleveland Could Have Received Ohio EPA Money to Reduce Trash in Recycling, but It Never Applied

click to enlarge Clevelanders dropped off bags of recycling at City Hall to express anger at the lapsing of the curbside recycling program, (5/4/20). - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Clevelanders dropped off bags of recycling at City Hall to express anger at the lapsing of the curbside recycling program, (5/4/20).

In March of 2019, right around the time the global recycling market was imploding, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency teamed up with statewide material recovery facilities (MRFs) and a national nonprofit to award grants across the state to help cities tackle the issue of non-recyclable trash in their recycling streams.

The grants were designed to invest in education and outreach, to teach and empower Ohio residents to recycle properly. In Northeast Ohio, both Akron and Lorain were among the six communities selected to receive state money.

The City of Cleveland did not apply.

In a statement provided Tuesday evening, the city said that it made the decision not to apply after consultation with the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District. Cleveland had been planning, at least theoretically, to overhaul the recycling program this year and didn't want to invest in messaging that might change. Additionally, the city said, the grant would have provided funding for marketing materials that only would have reached about 40,000 residents.

"Messaging around recycling has already changed drastically in the last 10 years," the City of Cleveland told Scene, "and we wanted to focus on bringing on the consultant to help us revamp the program."

More than a year after that decision, though, a consultant still has not begun work assessing the recycling program. The failure to apply for the state grants, or to hire an outside assessor, looks especially irresponsible now that the city's recycling contract has expired. All Clevelanders' recyclable material is now being disposed in a landfill, alongside garbage.

In a statement circulated last week, the city said that it made efforts to hire a new contractor to handle municipal recycling services. It issued RFPs on two occasions, but only received one bid.

Mayor Frank Jackson said in a teleconference with the media that the bid would have cost the city an exorbitant $190/ton. That rate, per the city's later statement, had the potential to increase the city's total waste disposal costs by $6 million. (More on these figures in a moment.)

One of the main reasons why only a single contractor bid on the recycling services, and the reason for that bid's high cost, is Cleveland's rate of contamination; that is, the amount of non-recyclable material that Clevelanders (carelessly or wishfully) include in their blue curbside bins. It was the rate of contamination nationwide, incidentally, which led China to suspend all imports of recyclable material in early 2019. Hence the market implosion. 

In a City Club Q&A last week, City Council President Kevin Kelley said that the global market wasn't the only issue affecting the local recycling lapse.

"We have a community education issue as well," he said. "Only about 15 percent of Clevelanders properly recycle."

The Ohio EPA grants were implemented to address that exact issue. And in Akron's case, the results were significant.

Akron was one of six Ohio communities who received state funding. The Ohio EPA awarded $66,000, and the national nonprofit Recycling Partnership chipped in roughly $150,000 in staff resources — the fully remote organization sent in staff from North Carolina, Wisconsin and elsewhere in Ohio —  for a "feet in the street" initiative.

Called the "Recycle Right" campaign, Akron's program last summer consisted of paid staffers conducting curbside cart observations and placing informational tags on carts if contaminants were observed, and then providing direct feedback to individual households. Keep Akron Beautiful, the local organization selected to administer the Ohio EPA funds, sent out informational mailers as well, and conducted field activities to audit and educate target groups, to improve recycling protocol in areas with high rates of contamination.

"Although we have a modern, well-developed solid waste management system that includes recycling collection and infrastructure, we are not immune from the challenges of the current recycling quality issues the country is facing," said Mayor Dan Horrigan, in a statement last summer. "Not only is recycling contamination costly, but a single contaminated truckload can cause delays and shutdowns of our recycling process, damage the sorting equipment or even injure workers."

The Recycling Partnership's Samantha Kappelman, answering questions about the Ohio campaign via email, told Scene that "Akron saw astounding results." Based on their numbers, she said contamination had been reduced by 40 percent in 12 weeks and that as of January 2020, Akron had saved $54,000 in contamination fees and were now averaging a savings of $18,000 per month thanks to the reduced contamination.

The City of Akron said those numbers weren't entirely up to date — they were based on a small sample size and estimated values — but the success of the program was indeed "meaningful." 

Akron's division of Waste Management recently performed an audit of 100 tons of recycled material which found that, thanks to the campaign, contamination had been reduced from 39 percent to 27 percent, (a decrease of roughly 30 percent).

"This has helped accomplish the goal of reducing the amount the City pays to recycle our customer’s materials," said Akron's Press Secretary, Ellen Lander-Nischt. "The numbers that the Recycling Partnership provided are their own calculations based on estimated values. Our actual reductions in expenses are somewhat less than that, but average more than $10,000/month."

Lander-Nischt said there was a "somewhat common misconception" that Akron was profiting off of the recycling program. That hasn't been the case for "many, many years."

"The reality is that the City of Akron heavily subsidizes the program," she said. "So, the less contamination we receive in our recycling stream, the less we have to pay to process those materials. This [Recycle Right] program has helped enable us to continue to afford to provide the recycling service, even through changes in the international market for recyclables."

In the fall, Akron unveiled a recycling app — "Akron Recycles" — available on iPhone and Android, that advises customers how to properly dispose of specific items. The plan was to launch a Recycle Right 2.0 campaign this summer with the goal of reducing recycling contamination by a further 30 percent, but the COVID-19 pandemic has naturally caused a few wrinkles, not least the reduction of the city's budget and staffing. 

Mayor Dan Horrigan's comments in an unpublished press release about Recycle Right 2.o, provided to Scene by the city of Akron, nevertheless rings true.

"The success of the Recycle Right campaign confirms what we already knew: our residents want to recycle correctly, they just need to be empowered with information," he said. "We hope to continue the cart tagging campaign in the future to build off of the momentum of the first round and further improve the quality of our recyclables. The end goal is a more sustainable recycling program for all of our residents.”

In Cleveland, contamination is still a serious issue.

A few years back, the city received a grant from the Recycling Partnership which resulted in the "One Simple Act" campaign. But its effects were minimal. In 2018, Cleveland residents recycled only about 7.5 percent of their waste, according to the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District's annual reporting, a steep decline from the already low 13 percent recycling rate the year before.  

click to enlarge Cleveland Could Have Received Ohio EPA Money to Reduce Trash in Recycling, but It Never Applied (2)
City of Cleveland
In August of 2018, the city began issuing fines for improper waste disposal after a two-year grace period. The Plain Dealer reported in November of that year that virtually all of these "trash tickets" were related to garbage, not recycling. Many Cleveland residents were still placing their recyclables in garbage bags or plastic grocery bags, for example — this is not allowed; recycling is supposed to be placed LOOSE in the blue bins — but the common practice was not ticketed.

WKYC 3News reported in July, 2019, that many of the citations were being issued in Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods. 

City leaders said that the fines were not intended to be punitive — "The goal wasn't to make money," Kevin Kelley told the PD. "The goal was [for residents] to set out the proper amount of garbage, and to provide a clean, safe and healthy neighborhood," — but that was certainly the impression among residents, many of whom were annoyed because they felt the rules had not been effectively communicated. "I think it's a scam," one resident told WKYC. 

Again, the Ohio EPA grants of 2019 seem like they would have been an ideal way to smooth over some of these misunderstandings, and maybe even to prevent the enforcement of fines.

One former City Hall employee who spoke anonymously to Scene said that the the Department of Sustainability was at that time hard at work planning the Cuyahoga50 events, which is why they might not have had the time or resources to apply for the Ohio grants, and that the Department of Public Works, under which Waste Collection and Disposal is housed, "probably wouldn't pursue on their own."

The Recycling Partnership did not wish to speculate on why the City of Cleveland did not apply for funding, and the Ohio EPA said they would not be able to respond to our questions by our deadline. (We'll update if they provide relevant comments in the days ahead).

In the meantime, many Cleveland residents are angered by the failure of city officials to secure a new recycling contract and the administration's lack of transparency throughout the process. The city published its statement about the state of recycling only after multiple media reports on the topic, initiated by questions from Fox 8 news.

click to enlarge Cleveland Could Have Received Ohio EPA Money to Reduce Trash in Recycling, but It Never Applied (3)
Sam Allard / Scene
On Monday, 60-70 residents dropped off bags of recycling on the steps of Cleveland City Hall to signal their frustration with city leaders and to communicate that both recycling and transparency should be priorities.

*Disclosure: The author's wife organized the demonstration.

Cleveland City Councilmen Charles Slife and Kerry McCormack have both said they've called for a council hearing on the subject.

One important question they should ask is what exactly the holdup has been with respect to the so-called "consultant" that the city says it has selected to assess the city's waste disposal program.

The city issued an RFP for a qualified assessor last summer, the goal of which was to "provide a seamless, efficient, customer-friendly, cost-effective operation for the City and to effectively allocate City resources to continue to provide quality solid waste collection." (Indeed, working to secure a consultant was the reason why the city says it did not apply for the Ohio EPA grants.)

The city's statement last week claimed that a consultant has now been selected. Who is this consultant? Were they one of the qualified applicants from the RFP above? What took so long to select them?

Another important area worthy of investigation is the purported expenditures of the existing recycling bid. The Northeast Ohio Sierra Club has called into question the numbers that the city has offered — the potential $6 million increase to annual waste disposal costs might be too high, it suggested in a Twitter thread.  

The City of Cleveland, however, told Scene that the Sierra Club began its analysis in the wrong place. It multiplied the total tonnage recycled by $190. But the city would have to pay on the total tonnage collected in the blue bins, nearly 70 percent of which is contaminated. Last year, the city said, it collected about 40,000 tons from the blue bins. It would have to pay $192/ton on all of that material. That total, (40,000 x $192), equals $7.68 million.

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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