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Keep Separating Your Recyclables Despite Suspended Program, Cleveland Says

Cleveland is asking residents to continue separating trash and recyclables, even though both are bound for the landfill.

Council members pressed city officials with questions about Cleveland’s stalled recycling program at a two-hour virtual council hearing Tuesday, almost two weeks after revelations that the city was no longer sending recyclables to be processed.

Global disruptions in the recycling market—plus a high local contamination rate—made the program too costly to continue, said officials in Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration.

The city used to receive a rebate as high as $21 per ton for its recyclables, Chief Operating Officer Darnell Brown said. But the price plummeted after China stopped accepting imports of most materials. Cleveland recently turned down a contract that would have cost the city $192 per ton, he said.

But Clevelanders should keep filling their blue recycling bins while the city works out a solution, Brown said.

“The amount of waste per household is not going to change, so saying, ‘Put everything in the black container’ won’t work,” he said.  

The city hired consultant GT Environmental to evaluate Cleveland’s waste management options. That work could take a year to finish up, Brown said. In the meantime, the city has received some interest in its paper and cardboard, he said.

“At some point we are going to go back into some kind of recycling process,” he said.

Another issue facing the city’s recycling program is that as much as 68 percent of Cleveland’s recycling is contaminated with non-recyclables, Brown said. Residents aren’t getting fined for mixing in the wrong materials right now, Brown said, but the city is still collecting fees to support the overall waste collection program.

While city officials said they’ve run recycling education programs over the years, Councilman Charles Slife pressed for more.

“I have residents in my ward who host recycling seminars,” Slife said, “and I’ve heard from a number of avenues a concern that our educational component has not been aggressive enough.”

A few council members said they were disappointed to have learned about the recycling program’s suspension from the news. Although council knew the recycling market was in trouble and the city’s contract was nearing expiration, the city should communicated better, Council President Kevin Kelley said.

“From a council person’s perspective, there’s nothing worse than learning something on the news, even if it was more of something maybe we had some knowledge of,” he said.

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