Recycling is back in Cleveland: Here’s what you should know

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland’s return to recycling last week netted 11 tons of recyclables in just the first day and a half of collections – a modest, yet promising milestone that spells the end of a lengthy hiatus, during which all city waste went straight to the landfill.

Though it is still early, and city officials readily admit there could be bumps along the way, they frame the relaunch of the recycling program as largely successful in its first week back – 26 months after the old program sputtered out in April 2020, problems with non-recyclable items contaminating entire hauls.

Mayor Justin Bibb’s new approach is aimed at reducing contamination to keep the program viable, meaning city residents must proactively opt in for the service.

“The idea’s if you’re doing it voluntarily, it’s something you’re going to do properly,” recycling coordinator Ren Brumfield said.

That philosophy means the program’s success comes down to residents understanding how to recycle correctly and how the city leads what Brumfield described as a “big behavioral change campaign” to educate them about what can go in recycling bins — and what can’t.

Despite the official re-launch, which began June 13, there are many unknowns, costs, and logistical challenges that lie ahead.

For more than two years, blue recycling carts essentially served as a second trash bin for Cleveland households, so changing those habits will be key. And some residents are already frustrated or confused by the new process, according to reports from various City Council members.

Ward 11′s Brian Mooney, for example, said some who hadn’t opted in did not understand why their bins were emptied into trash trucks, while a neighbor’s bin was collected by a recycling truck. Ward 2′s Kevin Bishop, meanwhile, suspects more residents won’t begin to opt in until the city starts retrieving bins from households that haven’t signed up.

“We expect folks to have some pushback when we start taking their cans, but that’s why we’re hoping they’ll join the recycling program,” Bishop said.

But for the most part, council members and other officials said residents are excited recycling is back, and they’re ready to participate. Brumfield expects any snags will be ironed out as the city eases back into recycling operations in the coming weeks and months.

In light of recycling’s return, and The Plain Dealer sought answers to common questions, and how the new program is working. Here’s what we found.

How do I recycle?

Residents can opt in by filling out an online form at, or by calling 216-664-3030. Within roughly one month, the city will mail you a set of stickers and instructions. Stickers must be placed on the bin, so recycling crews can identify the households who opted in. Contents in blue bins with stickers will be recycled. The sign-up period ends on July 31. (Additional sign-up periods could happen in the future, but those details haven’t been decided.)

What if I don’t opt ​​in, or haven’t received my stickers yet?

Blue bins without stickers will continue to be emptied into trash trucks. But that’s only temporary. As early as August – but more likely later into the fall – the city will collect all blue bins from households that you haven’t opted in.

If you have opted in, but don’t have stickers yet, Brumfield said to hang tight and check your mailbox over the next few weeks. The first batch of residents who signed up in late 2021 have stickers already, but the city is still working to distribute stickers to residents who signed up this year. Do not sign up multiple times. Feel free to call 311 one time to check the status of your sign-up, but additional inquiries are unnecessary, officials said.

Before bins are taken away later this year, city officials plan to notify residents who haven’t signed up, and give them another chance to participate.

What should I recycle?

Brumfield’s rule of thumb for what can be recycled: bottles, jars, jugs and tubs. Plastic cups are generally OK, such as iced coffee cups from Starbucks. Solo party cups are not recyclable.

Do not put plastic bags of any kind in the bin, including grocery sacks or the plastic wrap on cases of water. Styrofoam and clamshell take-out containers are not recyclable.

Focus on the types of items listed above, and don’t pay much attention to the little recycling symbol and plastic number printed on items, Brumfield recommends.

Well-intentioned people often act as “wish-cyclers,” but that only adds to the contamination problem, he said. They toss in any plastic because they want it to be re-used, but doing so ends up sending more items to the landfill and potentially costing Cleveland more money.

When in doubt, throw it in the trash to prevent contamination, Brumfield said.

The full list of guidelines can be found at

How many have opted in?

Roughly 32,000 households — out of 150,000 eligible — were signed up as of last week, according to Brumfield. (While 27,000 signed up late last year and 11,000 signed up this year, some may be duplicates, so an exact number isn’t known.)

The city expects the popularity of the program to continue growing, as it did for Columbus’s opt-in program, which saw participation increase over time, Bibb’s sustainability strategist Fran DiDonato said.

The city hopes to get 50,000 total sign-ups by the end of next month, but it’s unclear if it will meet that goal.

Registrations shot up on the first day of the new program – from an average of 100 or 200 a day, to 1,100 on Monday, Brumfield said.

Why Rumpke?

Cleveland has a five-year contract with Rumpke Waste & Recycling, based outside of Cincinnati.

DiDonato described Rumpke as Ohio’s largest recycler, and one of the nation’s most “innovative.” DiDonato said Rumpke accepts more items than other recyclers, which means fewer items would be considered contaminants. The company is also building a new processing facility in Columbus that should be able to accept even more types of items when it opens in 2024, she said.

Further, about 80% of the materials processed by Rumpke are sold to companies in the Midwest who re-purpose them into consumer goods. All of it stays in the United States, and much of it stays in Ohio, she said.

For example, some glass recycled by Rumpke goes to Perrysburg-based glass manufacturer Owens-Illinois, which turns it back into usable products quickly.

Recycled items like cardboard are processed and turned into new cardboard within about a week after they are picked up curbside, DiDonato said. Glass takes about 30 days; cans take about two months, she said.

“It’s all about the circular economy and keeping dollars local,” DiDonato said.

How much is the new program costing city taxpayers?

The final price tag will come down to several variables, all of which are still unknown. Base rates apply to each ton processed and overall volume, according to a Bibb spokeswoman. Costs also increase incrementally each year – annually ranging from about $643,000 on the low end to $1.3 million on the high end, though it could increase further if Cleveland generates more than 10,000 tons.

Additionally, per-ton costs could increase by more than 20% if a truckload ends up being substantially contaminated with non-recyclable materials. (The whole truckload also would be tossed in the trash.)

The city could also receive some rebates if contamination levels are low, or if the materials recycled are ones that yield a higher return on the re-sale market.

What about unused blue bins?

The city is in the process of finding a contractor to collect all bins from households who haven’t signed up for the recycling program. That process is expected to cost $500,000. The expense is necessary because the city does not have the capacity to collect what could be roughly 100,000 bins on its own, just as it did not have the capacity to deliver the bins on its own when the program started in 2007, waste Commissioner Terrell Pruitt council told members during a May hearing committee.

The bins in the best condition — perhaps 10% of those collected, per Pruitt — will take up significant storage space, though city officials don’t yet know where they’ll go, Brumfield said.

Where will the blue bins go after collection?

The roughly 10,000 bins retained by the city will either go to households that opt ​​in to recycling in the future, or they’ll serve as replacements for cracked or damaged bins.

The remainder – potentially 90,000 or so – will go to the contractor that collects them. They’re made of “highly valued plastic resin,” Bibb’s spokeswoman said, noting that the city does not yet know how many of those will be re-used and how many will be recycled into new items.

The wheels on carts first distributed by the city in 2007 must be broken off to stack them onto trucks during the collection process, according to Pruitt, so those likely won’t be reused. Carts after 2007 were built differently, so those could be reused after they’re collected from across the city, he said.

Bins are generally usable for 10 to 12 years, so many of the bins that will be collected are already beyond that point, said Brumfield.

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