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Government & Politics

Q&A: Checking in on Cleveland's new opt-in recycling program

Good recycling.jpg
Ren Brumfield
City of Cleveland
A pile of recyclable cardboard packaging, office paper, plastic bottles and jugs, relatively free of contamination, sits on the floor of a transfer facility in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland is a week into its new opt-in recycling program after a two year hiatus to figure out what went wrong with its former program, which was citywide. The city suspended it after it failed to renew a contract with a recycling vendor because of high contamination rates. "Morning Edition" host Amy Eddings spoke with Ren Brumfield, recycling coordinator for the city of Cleveland.

Ren, the city's recycling costs were going up because a lot of unrecyclable material and out and out trash was being placed in residents blue recycling bins. The contamination rate, as I understand it, was very high over 60%. What's the connection between high contamination rates and high costs?

Well, basically, they charge the recycling vendors charge an extra cost because if they take all the recyclables that we send and then they find out that a lot of that is trash, then what they have to do is pack that back onto a truck and then take it to a landfill, which charges them money so they pass it on to us. So that's why we really need to keep that contamination down.

Good recycling 2.jpg
Ren Brumfield
City of Cleveland
Recycled material spills out of the back of a white sanitation truck. This load of cardboard, plastic jugs and bottles, collected as part of the City of Cleveland's new, opt-in recycling program, is relatively free of garbage, unacceptable items and other contaminants.

So the city chose an opt in program for Recycling 2.0. How does this address the contamination issue?

Well, in part, it addresses that contamination issue by having people really directly talk to us, having them voluntarily join the program, and in doing so, agree to follow the rules of that program, which outlined these are the things that we recycle.

So you were out last week at the transfer stations where recycling loads are dropped off. Did you notice improvements?

I did.

So, Ren, I'm going to call out my mom here. She doesn't live in Cleveland. She lives in Avon, but she refuses to get out of the habit of putting recyclables into plastic grocery bags. She wants to keep her recycling bin clean. But you don't want plastic bags. Why? They're plastic. Aren't they recyclable?

They are plastic. They even have one of those triangles and a number on them, but they're not accepted. And the reason is that because they cause a lot of chaos in the plant. They wrap around the gears that move things through. They fall off the conveyor belt. It's not easy to do.

There are a lot of things that I think people don't quite get about, about how this stuff is processed once it actually goes in that blue bin and then we take it away from you. There has to be a lot of technology on the back end that separates all these things. These things that look like sprockets, that are rolling this stuff are really, really good at catching plastic bags and getting them all hung up in it.

Bad Recycling straps and cords
Ren Brumfield
City of Cleveland
Plastic packaging straps, like the kind seen here in a recent load of recyclables collected through the City of Cleveland's new, opt-in recycling program, are not accepted because they get caught in the machinery used to sort recycables.

And then there are problems and there are people that try to recycle those plastic straps that will be around packages, around boxes when they get them. You can't do that. Or they'll put in a whole lot of, like, long, just sheet plastic. Like there are shower curtains, just long rolls of plastic. These things cause problems. They get tangled up in the processes and they won't be able to work. So, i think that, that's a place where I'd really like to expand some knowledge and get people to understand more about that so that they understand what they need to do on the front end.

Cleveland19 did a report about confusion over how to enroll. People, I guess, are seeing the recycling trucks roll by and they're like, "Hey, they're not stopping at my house. What gives?"

All right. So the way it works right now, because you have basically two groups of people out there right now, you have those that are in the recycling program and those are not in the recycling program. And each of them have the same blue card. So that's the purpose of those stickers that that we are sending out to the people that are enrolled in the program to differentiate the two. So then what you're going to see is you'll see a truck going down the street and selectively picking up the blue bins that only have only the blue bins that have the sticker on them. If you don't have that sticker on your blue bin, if you put that blue bin out, what's going to happen is it's going to get picked up in the same truck with the black carts. Just like what you'd seen in the recent past.

Bad Recycling toys and shower curtain
Ren Brumfield
City of Cleveland
An unrecyclable clear plastic shower curtain and plastic toy steering wheel console lie among pieces of cardboard and plastic bottles, which are accepted in the City of Cleveland's new, opt-in recycling program. The curtain and the toy are examples of "wishcycling," or placing plastic materials into a city curbside recycling program even though this type of plastic is not accepted by the recycling vendor.

So you mean people those recyclables will be picked up, but they'll be picked up by the garbage man and put in with the regular trash.

That's exactly what I'm saying.

So far, 32,000 households have opted in. Is that right?

That'd be roughly that.

And that's 32,000 households out of how many?

Roughly 150,000. So that's still you know, we only have about 20% of the city.

So why recycle when it's such a small percentage of the city's population? Isn't it diminishing returns to run those trucks on those routes with such a small number of stops?

I would say that, you know what, we're recycling because, you know, it really is the right thing to do with what we should do. If we had more people, it would definitely make it more more worthwhile, more economical. But I think is what we need to do anyway. And if we start it, maybe it'll grow.

Residents of the City of Cleveland may opt-in to the curbside recycling program at www.clerecycles.com or (216) 664-3030 until July 31, 2022.