Mayor Frank Jackson Confirms: All Cleveland Recyclables are Going to a Landfill

click to enlarge Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).
Mayor Frank Jackson admitted Tuesday that all the recyclable material gathered each week as part of the city's curbside waste collection program is going to a landfill, right alongside residents' trash. Jackson said that the market had "fallen out of" recycling and that despite multiple attempts to secure a new contract, the city received only one bid.

"It came in at around $200 per ton," Jackson said in a teleconference Tuesday. "For [Cleveland], that's about $7 million."

Jackson said the financial goal of the municipal recycling program was merely to break even, but that Cleveland had in fact turned a profit for years, when recyclable goods were hot commodities overseas. That's no longer the case.

The city plans to continue shipping recyclable materials to the landfill until they receive a more "reasonable" bid or until such time as the market improves. Jackson had no idea when they might be.

"In a practical sense, there is no recycling," he said.

The Mayor advised, though, that Cleveland residents should still go through the motions of separating their recyclable material from their garbage — rinsing milk jugs and folding cardboard boxes and placing these items, loose, in the blue city carts. He noted that once a habit is broken, it's often difficult to return to them.

Though Fox 8 broke the story last year that much of the city's recycling was already going to a landfill — they placed GPS tracking devices in recyclable goods to confirm — yesterday's confirmation from the Mayor himself that recycling no longer exists came as a shock for both residents and leaders.

Ward 3 City Councilman Kerry McCormack, for example, told Scene that he heard the news from a resident who'd seen the Fox 8 story after the Mayor's conference call with the media. 

"Even when it's bad news, it's always worth it to proactively communicate it," McCormack said. "Even if you have to tell the whole city or neighborhood bad news, it's better to tell people what's up. You might get blow back, but at least you've been transparent. I understand there are dynamics globally at play here, but if we're really struggling to find a [recycling] partner, then tell people that."

Council President Kevin Kelley hadn't been aware of the specifics either. He appeared on a City Club virtual forum Friday morning and was asked about the truthfulness of the Fox 8 report. Kelley said he could not confirm — he had not seen the story — but he echoed Jackson's comments about the global market. 

"What we as a community need to be ready for is that recycling is different than when it started," he said. "The value of recycled goods has diminished tremendously. There was a point, when we started our recycling program, where companies would pay us to take our recycling. Now, we probably have to pay people to take it. We have a community education issue as well. Only about 15 percent of Clevelanders properly recycle."

This defeatist market pragmatism sure doesn't sound like the rhetoric we should expect from elected leaders in The Green City on a Blue Lake, leaders who for years have sermonized on the importance of sustainability. In addition to the flagrant transparency issues here, both Kelley's and Jackson's remarks lend the impression that Cleveland only cares about sustainability when it's profitable to do so.

It goes without saying that this revelation is a kick in the teeth to the 15 percent of residents who recycle properly, but it's also an insult to all those who have tried to do so genuinely, who have recognized that small individual actions can make a difference on the environment when we all act together.

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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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